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EW's critic on ''Ballast,'' ''Hamlet 2''

”Ballast,” about three wayward souls in the Deep South, is lyrically sublime; the satirical reboot of a Shakespearean classic starring Steve Coogan is uproariously anarchistic

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EW’s critic on ”Ballast,” ”Hamlet 2”

True confession: I spent a week and a day at the Sundance Film Festival with my ear to the ground, chasing the buzz, following my passions, going to close to 30 movies, all in an attempt to watch and report on everything of conceivable significance — and I still never got to see the two films that ended up as Grand Jury prize winners, Frozen River (dramatic) and Trouble the Water (documentary). That’s the way it goes sometimes. There are more than 100 films at the festival — I could name a dozen that I heard great things about and that it killed me not to see — and predicting the award winners, or even attempting to chase them, is a fool’s game.

I did see one superb film I thought would win an award, and it did — Ballast, which took the dramatic jury’s directing prize — as well as one other film that took home a very different sort of prize: Hamlet 2, the dementedly hilarious, let’s-put-on-a-show-so-terrible-it’s-great high-school comedy that was purchased, by Focus Features, for $10-point-something million. (Not being a business reporter, I can’t tell you precisely how much that something was, but it was initially presented — by design — as being just enough of a smidge more than the price paid two years ago for Little Miss Sunshine.) Sundance, like Hollywood, is a dance of art and commerce, but at this festival it’s a much happier dance (since the two forces aren’t generally in conflict), and these two films, which generated vast amounts of enthusiasm in separate but equal ways, showed you how effortlessly that situation could exist.

***

It takes daring, as well as skill, to make a drama that allows the audience to get its bearings only gradually, and Ballast, written and directed by Lance Hammer, has the audacity and talent to render that process an arresting one. The film doesn’t just bring three troubled, wayward characters in the Mississippi Delta to rich, gnarled, vivid life. It presents them as enigmas who come into focus moment by moment, scene by scene, and that journey of discovery forces us to cast away the clichés of race, poverty, and existence in the Deep South.

A portly, forlorn man sits in his house, nearly catatonic, as the body of his twin brother — a suicide — lays in the next room. A boy of about 12 rushes into that same house, waving a gun, threatening to shoot it. (You’re scared because you think he just might.) He could be a baby thug out of South Central, yet moments later there he is, being cradled by his mother, his innocence as genuine as his threat of violence. The storytelling in Ballast is starkly realistic, with no background music and a minimum of dialogue, yet the beautifully spare images leap forward in time, filling in the relationships with every nervous jump. It’s a style that owes an obvious debt to the Dardennes brothers, only without their Marxist didacticism, and with a sensitivity to the hidden compartments of despair in the lives of destitute African-Americans that suggests a deep affinity with the Charles Burnett of Killer of Sheep.

As we discover how thornily close these three characters really are, the movie, which starts off as a kind of imagistic poem, evolves into something we perhaps weren’t expecting: a damn good story. Ballast, as its title suggests, is about depressed, knocked-over lives that need, and find, a new kind of balance. Michael J. Smith Sr., Jim Myron Ross, and Tarra Riggs give performances of no-frills purity, and the final shot may be the most subtle life-affirming ending I’ve ever seen — and, as a result, one of the most memorable. Ballast is a tale of melancholy and liberation that marks Lance Morrow as a filmmaker to watch.

NEXT PAGE: Hamlet 2: ”The movie that Steve Coogan cultists have been waiting for”

If you’re a fan of Steve Coogan, that King Leer of a motormouth British comedian who starred in 24 Hour Party People, came to Hollywood (remember his glorious performance as his own trumped-up self in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes?), and saw his crossover American career do a nosedive before it had even gotten off the ground, then you won’t want to miss Hamlet 2, in which he’s like the son of Peter Sellers crossed with a more handsome version of Tiny Tim. This is the movie that Coogan cultists have been waiting for — the one that finally lets him cut his inner wildman loose, only within a structure that lends method to his madness.

He plays a godawful failed actor, despised by his wife (a scalding Catherine Keener), who has become a self-loathing high-school drama teacher, and Coogan turns this pathetic yet insistently egomaniacal creature into a loser-nerd of genius. He mugs, he glowers, he hams up his telling of jokes too corny-horrible to print, and — most mesmerizingly — he comes on like a sarcastic geek acting like a swishy queen trying to pass himself off as a ”normal” heterosexual Middle American.

Make no mistake: The gay/not gay camp-theatrical weirdness is built right into Hamlet 2, which Andrew Fleming has directed and cowritten like a broader, more looney-tunes version of Waiting for Guffman. To save his job, Coogan’s lowly drama instructor writes and stages a musical sequel to Hamlet, in which a time machine returns the great Dane to life, so that he can save himself and everyone else in the play. As opening night approaches, the show becomes hugely controversial, because it is blasphemous (and demented) in almost every way. Yet really, it’s a high school musical that would make John Waters proud. You may wonder what could possibly be funny about a song called ”Raped in the Face,” but when you see this and other numbers, such as ”Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” they give off such a happy blast of cluelessness that the show seems to be rediscovering — through its very offensiveness — the unhinged glory of showbiz.

Hamlet 2 doesn’t have the exquisiteness of Guffman; with Coogan as its maestro/vamp in chief, it’s more like a one-man demolition derby of bad taste. But you will laugh, and, with any luck, you will become a believer in Steve Coogan, who in this film proves as uproarious an anarchist as Sascha Baron Cohen. At Sundance 2008, that’s what independence looked like.

See our Sundance Q&A with Steve Coogan and castmates from Hamlet 2