Of course the film most people think of when discussing Jesus as a figure of fun is Monty Python's Life of Brian, even though the figure of Jesus is the one thing that the movie treats with some respect; the pre- and post-credit sequences both make it clear that the film is not about Jesus and keep him at arms length. There are of course earlier films which are more directly scathing about Jesus such as The Milky Way (1969) and 1972's Greaser's Palace (although, I should add, I've never seen it), but these films are more obscure and less likely to be an influence on this more recent movement than the Pythons.
What's interesting is the way that these films have grown bolder in their depictions. In Superstar (1999) Ferrell's 'Jesus' is clear he's not the real thing, but a product of the heroine's subconscious. Jesus's appearances in South Park are a little more complex, but ultimately this was about mocking the kitsch Christ of (the Christian) faith rather than the Jesus of history who started it.
The envelope was pushed a little further in last year's The Ten where Justin Theroux plays a modern day character called Jesus who has long hair and a beard and the power to walk across water. He also has the gift of seduction and deflowers a librarian. Is this meant to be the real Jesus? In honesty the film is so surreal and absurd that even the question doesn't make sense.
So Steve Coogan's performance as a drama teacher playing Jesus in the forthcoming Hamlet 2 (official site) is part of a long tradition. Yet if anything it's less daring than it's predecessors, even despite the annoyingly catchy song 'Rock me Sexy Jesus'. The Jesus angle has been played up by articles such as the one at Cinematical, but the trailer suggest this aspect is only a fairly small part of the final film. The movie's main story appears to be about the attempts of Coogan's struggling drama teacher to produce a show that can save his department. His solution is 'Hamlet 2' which uses a time machine to get around the problem of all the leading characters dying in the original, and introduces a host of new characters into the mix including Einstein, Jesus, Satan, and Hillary Clinton.In many ways it sounds like it's more similar to Seymour-Hoffman's role in Along Came Polly. There Hoffman plays an ego-maniacal producer who is playing both Jesus and Judas in a production of Godspell. Given that it was released in 2004 I can't help but wonder if this facet was added while speculation was rife that Mel Gibson might be playing Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. In any case the film's target is self-obsessed actor-directors rather than Jesus himself.
It's fairly obvious there is to be a similar dynamic here. It's not Jesus that is being mocked, but his use as a cultural and political football, and his portrayal by our culture. Jesus Christ, Superstar seems very much at the fore here. Aside from the way the original film portrays Jesus as cool and attractive to women, there is also a visual similarity between Coogan's Jesus (pictured above) and Glen Carter's portrayal in the more recent filmed version of the show, where numerous characters wear similarly tight white vests. It's interesting to see how one generation's attempt to present a fresh image of Jesus becomes the next generations satirised cliché.
Others have made the link between the song 'Rock me Sexy Jesus' and Little Shop of Horrors and there's a certain thematic similarity between this film and The Tall Man which also climaxes in a wonderfully naff and pretentious musical (in that film the musical is about The Elephant Man).
There are some other clips of Hamlet 2 available to those in the US, but unfortunately I've not had the chance to see them. The film played at Sundance and so has already been reviewed by Variety and Hollywood Reporter is due for wider release on August 22, 2008. All five reviews at Rotten Tomatoes are positive so far, although it has only got 5.5 at IMdb at present.