All over the country, kids savor the last gasp of summer and trudge back to school, looseleaf notebooks and lunch money clutched ever so tightly in their hands. Teachers meet and greet the bright and shiny new faces of their overcrowded classes and embark on a shared adventure that lasts till June. The good ones know that the influence of these encounters can last a lifetime.
No surprise then that impactful teachers inspire a huge genre of films. And with arts in education perpetually on the budgetary chopping block, the besieged arts teacher occupies a sacred little corner of the shelf. Two prime examples of the sub-genre climb into the Smackdown ring. In this corner, defending champion Glenn Holland, full-time music teacher and part-time composer. Stumbling clumsily into the ring, wearing roller skates and a caftan commando-style, it’s failed actor and drama teacher, Dana Marschz. Let’s check your work carefully, gentlemen. Everything counts in determining your final grade.
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In “Hamlet 2,” aspiring, untalented, failed actor Dana Marschz (the brilliantly inimitable Steve Coogan) moves to Tucson, Arizona to teach Drama. Once there, his misguided attempts at original theater meet with even more abject failure and derision. Finally judged irrelevant and not worth saving, his drama program is canceled. Never one to accept defeat as much more than a speed bump, Mister M and his ragtag bunch of moppets and thugs put on one last show, swinging for the bleachers this time. Sound like you’ve seen this one before? Trust me. You haven’t.
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The Defending Champion
In “Mr Holland’s Opus,” Richard Dreyfuss (over)plays musician/composer Glenn Holland who grudgingly takes a teaching job to pay the rent while striving in his ever-increasingly rare spare time to compose one memorable piece of music to leave his mark on the world. His opus. His life’s work. Hamhanded enough for you yet? Oh wait. The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye in this one. Devastated to learn that his infant son is deaf (oh, the heaviosity of the irony – even worse than a fly in his Chardonnay) he struggles (however wimpily) to connect over the years. His wife, the impossibly patient – one might even say comatose – Glenne Headley keeps those homefires burning though to what possible end I cannot fathom.
After thirty years of teaching, the music program at his school is cut, and Mr. Holland despairs. Friends and students, past and present, gather to play his opus. His true life’s work plays his life’s work, and Holland discovers his new definition of success and the meaning of his life’s work. Opus. Get it? Oh, you will. Over and over.
And here’s what I was left wondering. An auditorium full of grateful people …each could have donated a hundred bucks and saved the program. Alas. I’m over-accustomed to California where parent booster groups customarily fund the arts, school budget crises be damned.
Mr. Holland isn’t a nice man. He’s prickly and selfish. He’s not a particularly good husband. He’s certainly not a connected dad. He spends a large part of his thirty year tenure teaching wishing he were doing something more important. In spite of himself, he ultimately becomes a decent, dedicated, even impassioned teacher. Yawn. Unlikable whiny protagonists never quite win this girl’s heart.
And this movie makes a cardinal mistake. We hear the music Mr. Holland’s been composing at the end. And guess what. It’s mediocre. Ersatz Copeland. Cheez Whiz served up by a motley group of alums.
Richard Dreyfus, always an actor who lives in his head (who’s steadily morphing into a stockier slightly more Semitic/neurotic Paul Newman), wrings all the misery and narcissism out of the character. Taking himself so seriously, there’s not much left for the audience to do. Mr. Holland and his movie do most of our opus for us. Few surprises are left for the teacher movie, and this one’s jampacked with cliches and predictability. It’s a Swiss watch of a ride, running on time and with precision, going exactly where one expects it to go. Our feelings about Mr. Holland don’t change much. He doesn’t need us to feel sorry for him. He’s sorry enough for all of us.
We might be motivated to fund the arts, but we don’t want to meet Mr. Holland particularly or invite him to dinner or even have him for our music teacher. Full of platitudes and smug superiority, he’s a tough teacher to love. And for me, it’s a tough movie to love. Or even like. I admire its message. How could I not? I’m an arts teacher and I work mostly pro bono. Save yourself two hours and eight bucks and buy yourself a The Arts Are Not A Luxury bumper sticker. Better yet, donate to the music program at your local school. They’re probably in trouble. They usually are.
“Hamlet 2” shows us everything, and even the stuff that’s cringeworthy is totally and completely entertaining. One of the true joys of indie comedies is unpredictability. (I’m going to try my darnedest not to spoil any of the surprises and jokes and plot twists so as to propel you into the theater, expecting only to have fun and not feel like you know where you’re headed.)
Hero Dana Marschz faces a classroom full of unlikely arts students, and the true surprise and gift of the film is how many of them are fully individuated by the end. Steve Coogan, a longtime favorite (and huge comedy genius crush) of mine, delivers the breakout role of any lifetime. He was made for the role, and it’s impossible to imagine the film without him at its hilarious, slapstick, touching, insightful center. He manages somehow to be at once awkward and graceful, Keatonesque, by turns attractive and repulsive, clueless and wise. A world of hope and pain is reflected in his eyes. Catherine Keener plays his wife, a brittle woman. (Gee, what a surprise!) Her drunk scene is a comic classic of cold cruelty. David Arquette plays their boarder in the best and subtlest performance of his career. Elizabeth Shue is a lovely surprise; I won’t say more. Amy Poehler shows up late in a casting coup, taking her supporting role and making it something special. In fact, all the performances — students, parents, and the principal — are simply spot-on delicious. Even the copy shop guy earns several out-loud laughs. In “Hamlet 2”, there literally are no small parts. Every cliché gets delightfully turned on its head, and everyone on screen gets something specific and terrific to play.
But the best surprise is how absolutely terrific/terrible the final show is. (I even pre-ordered the soundtrack from Amazon.com; that’s how much fun it was.) In fact, all the shows within the show are worthy and hilarious, not hastily tossed off but interesting failures, full of insight and recognizable human behavior and striving. Director/writer Andrew Fleming wrings moments of brilliant awfulness throughout — from the montage of Mr. Marschz’s early commercial career to the scenes from Tucson high school productions and rehearsals, and most especially the final production. Mister M’s classroom teaching moments are just as sidesplittingly awkward, true, and weirdly effective. The film lets you feel the depth of this man’s pain and struggle and invites you to laugh at him too. Because the film is so intelligent and affectionate, our laughter doesn’t feel cruel, and our sympathies remain solidly with our hero till the very end, one of the most immensely satisfying endings of any (teacher) film ever.
I love teachers. I really do. I still write to my sixth grade teacher, and a few of my high school teachers remain some of my closest friends. My mom’s a teacher. The bad ones are burned out husks, inspiring a thousand daydreams. They watch the clock, waiting for retirement and living for the weekend. The good ones change your life forever.
Steve Coogan’s Dana Marschz joins my personal pantheon of most loved movie teachers. Already ensconced in my hall of fame movie teachers lounge, you’ll find Matthew Broderick’s Mr. “Election” McAllister, Ray Walston as Mr. Hand from “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” and “Carrie”’s compassionate gym teacher, Betty Buckley. Okay, it’s a quirky little list. No Miss Dove. No Mr. Chips. No Dead Poets, No Sir With Or Without Love, No Dangerous Minds, No Great Debaters…I like my teachers quirky, not earnest. I like my sympathies engaged on the sly. Full frontal sentiment leaves me detached.
Well, film students. The final answer should be obvious to those of you paying attention to the essay portion of this little test. Not a big fan of the maudlin. No predigested sentiment works on this tough cookie. Which disqualifies Mr. Holland and his little opus from earning an A.
That said…Run. Don’t walk to “Hamlet 2” and on the way, do yourself a favor. Don’t read any other reviews. They’ll just give something away that you’ll like better if you see it fresh and unspoiled for yourself. If you ever took drama or saw a high school play…if you were ever on a stage or in a classroom…if you’ve ever written anything…if you already love Steve Coogan…if you’ve never heard of Steve Coogan. See it. Unless you’re the kind of person who offends easily. In which case, you’re probably not reading this. Class dismissed.