Steve Coogan does Hamlet in his own special wayby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio,
Stephanie Curtis, Minnesota Public Radio
Steve Coogan is considered a comedic genius in his British homeland, although he's not as well known here in the U.S. Coogan's specialty is deadpan performances which shred the conventions of television, movies and drama. His latest film, "Hamlet 2," opens this weekend.
St. Paul, Minn. — Steve Coogan's career in drama didn't start well.
In grade school, a teacher cast him as a flying monkey in "Tthe Wizard of Oz." His parents had to make the costume, and as he tells it, they just blew it. He still feels humiliated.
"That was like ritual..." Coogan paused to choose the right word. "That was child abuse. Yeah."
In the years since, it's been Coogan administering the abuse. He's made a career out of lampooning performers.
His first hit on British television was as Alan Partridge, a clueless former TV talk show host relegated to the overnight shift on a community radio station.
Coogan then hit big with the film, "24 Hour Party People." There he played Tony Wilson, a real TV music program host in the north of England who became hugely influential in the post-punk music scene in Britain.
With the help of director Michael Winterbottom, Coogan played with the conventions of filmmaking and character presentation.
The film opens with Wilson shooting a hang-gliding sequence for his TV show. After a bumpy landing, he walks towards the camera and begins talking.
"You are going to be seeing a lot more of that sort of thing in the film, although that actually did happen," he said. "Obviously, it's symbolic, it works on both levels. I don't want to tell you too much, don't want to spoil the film. But I'll just say Icarus. OK? If you know what I mean, great. If you don't, it doesn't matter, but you should probably read more."
He walks off and the title music begins.
Coogan and Winterbottom used a similar approach to adapting the nine volumes of Laurence Sterne's 18th century satirical novel "Tristram Shandy."
"Tristram Shandy is an odd, unusual, weird, unique piece of literature that we tried to do justice to, and Michael filmed it because people kept saying the book was unfilmable," Coogan said. "So that, to him, made it a really good idea to make a film of."
The film dodges between the storyline of Sterne's bawdy satire, and the comedy of Steve Coogan trying to make a costume drama, even as people mistake him for his character of Alan Partridge.
The film was greeted as a work of genius by some critics, and bemusement by others.
Coogan's recent work has been more conventional, and more lucrative, as he's been adopted by Hollywood.
He was a Roman soldier in "Night at the Museum." In this summer's "Tropic Thunder," he stands out as a besieged film director trying to make a war movie with slap happy prima donna superstars. It doesn't end well.
In his latest film, Coogan mounts an assault on Hamlet.
"There's just something funny about someone trying to write a sequel to what's arguably the greatest play ever written in the English language," Coogan said.
"Hamlet 2" tells the story of Dana, an inept high school drama teacher, who learns the school board wants to shut down his program. Dana decides to put on one last magnificent show.
Unfortunately, he decides to write it himself. And he decides it should be a musical with a couple of twists.
"Hamlet 2? Doesn't everyone die at the end of the first one?" asks one of Dana's friends in the film.
"I have a device!" Dana replies.
Not one for understatement, he includes in his musical a time machine for Hamlet, and also the second coming of Jesus.
Perhaps not surprisingly, with a theme song entitled "Rock me Sexy Jesus," some parents want the show shut down. In turn the ACLU sends a lawyer eager for a First Amendment test case, and the battle begins.
Steve Coogan moved to the U.S. a couple of years ago, but admits it's been a tough nut to crack, even for someone so famous in the UK.
"Culturally, in terms of pop culture, the British are much more conversant with American culture than Americans are with British culture," Coogan said "So I think we tend to understand Americans better than American understand us."
That may change with "Hamlet 2," or with another biopic he's filming on the life of Eddy "The Eagle" Edwards, the unlikely ski jumping star of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
Edwards was the only British entrant for the event, and became a national hero and an international celebrity when although he finished dead last in every event.
- All Things Considered, 08/22/2008, 5:24 p.m.