The Onion.com ran a funny story some years back about obsolete provocateur Marilyn Manson mounting a futile campaign to shock Midwesterners.

He'd knock on doors covered in the blood of aborted fetuses, or whatever, and receive a polite send-off. A few compassionate Kansans even pretended to be shocked out of respect for Manson's ego.

I thought of this story while watching the overrated "Hamlet 2," one of those straight-out-of-Sundance "sensations" with a smug belief in its own subversiveness.

It's a comic account of a dreadful high-school drama teacher (Steve Coogan) whose awful "arts" program is about to be cut by school-district budget-busters (not to mention lack of interest).

He decides to go out with a bang, staging a lavish production of his original screenplay - a sequel to "Hamlet" in which all of the characters are magically brought back to life.

The idea of converting Shakespeare's bloody tragedy into a sentimental hack's exercise in wish-fulfillment has promise. Not as much as "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," but some.

Coogan's extremely sensitive character has always used theater as a way of working out unresolved issues about his authoritarian father, and his new play promises to put a cathartic end to such issues.

"Hamlet 2," though, loses track of this idea, or rather, displaces it with a less promising one - the idea that the teacher's awful new play becomes a cause celebre because of the way it offends the local crackers.

The details of this are poorly handled by writer-director Andrew Fleming. No one has seen the play, nor is anyone likely to see it, so Fleming essentially conjures offended rubes out of nowhere.

And when we do see the play, we wonder what all of the fuss is about. Its "offensive" centerpiece is a musical number called "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," which could have been deleted (for musical blandness) from "Jesus Christ Superstar" or "Godspell."

It would have been offensive in maybe 1953.

Nonetheless, Fleming persists with the stale idea (this movie makes "Footloose" look revolutionary) that censor-minded yokels organize a boycott, attracting the attention of news networks and the American Civil Liberties Union (in the person of Amy Poehler, who's been funnier).

Here the movie almost stumbles on to a truly subversive idea - that the teacher's fatuousness is mistaken for transgression, and taken to Broadway, then on to Hollywood.

But the presence of angry rural goons in pickup trucks with gun racks says otherwise.

In a similarly arbitrary and unconvincing way, the movie asks us to accept that the acting class is full of racists. Really? The Drama Club? I guess things have changed since I graduated from high school.

But I suspect not. I suspect that "Hamlet 2" concocts these flimsy haters to congratulate itself for delivering the message that racism is bad.

It's a tired brand - designed for urban audiences who wish to be reassured of their broad-mindedness.


"Hamlet 2" is just the opposite. And too often, the opposite of funny. *

Produced by Eric Eisner, Leonid Rozhetskin and Aaron Ryder, directed by Andrew Fleming, written by Andrew Fleming and Pam Brady, music by Ralph Sall, distributed by Focus Features.