Emperor's Club, The (2002) ** 1/2
Directed by Michael Hoffman. Written by Neil Tolkin, based on the short story "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin. Photography, Lajos Koltai. Editing, Harvey Rosenstock. Music, James Newton Howard. Production design, Patrizia von Brandenstein. Produced by Andrew Karsch and Marc Abraham. Cast: Kevin Kline (William Hundert), Steven Culp (Older Martin Blythe), Embeth Davidtz (Elizabeth), Patrick Dempsey (Older Louis Masoudi), Joel Gretsch (Older Sedgewick Bell), Edward Herrmann (Headmaster Woodbridge), Emile Hirsch (Sedgewick Bell), Rob Morrow (James Ellerby), Paul Dano (Martin Blythe), Jesse Eisenberg (Louis Masoudi), Rishi Mehta (Deepak Mehta, Harris Yulin (Senator Bell), et al. A Universal Pictures release. 120 minutes. PG-13.
American school movies are a genre with three main subgenres: 1) comedies or would-be comedies in which sex, love affairs, pranks and hi-jinx predominate, while learning (anything academic) is invisible; 2) serious works in which dedicated teachers tame the violent pupils; 3) a minority and generally sentimental category in which teachers inspire students.
The granddad of category 3 is "Goodbye Mr. Chips," an MGM production made by American director Sam Wood in England who filmed mostly in a boys' school. It was a 1939 release, that is, in that great, legendary year for Hollywood. The cast and crew were Brits, except for Paul Henreid, that real-life mid-European aristocrat who is best remembered as Victor Laszlo in "Casablanca." Heading a wonderful assembly of talents were Robert Donat (who won for his role a Best Actor Oscar) and Greer Garson. In "Mr. Chips" those two thespians and Sam Wood were as good as they ever got. The movie was nicely remade exactly 30 years later. It starred Peter O'Toole.
Am I wasting space with the paragraph above? No. This is a plug for "Mr. Chips" and a strong wish that cinephiles see it.
"The Emperor's Club" is set in a posh prep school, St. Benedict's, in 1972s. The focus is on Professor Hundert (Kevin Kline) who teaches the classics. (One wonders where, nowadays, pupils learn Greek and Roman languages, history and literature!) The impeccably tweedy Professor has, all things considered, a class to die for. This alone should make viewers who are educators see the film.
The movie's title refers to Roman youths being given a toga when they come of manhood age -it's like a Roman Bar-Mitzvah. The high point of the course is a venerated tradition, an event called "Mr. Julius Caesar Day." Hundert's students are culled via tests. The three top scorers, wearing togas, vie at a competition attended by a Who's Who of wealthy parents. They are asked tricky/esoteric questions by Prof. Hundert. The winner is crowned Mr. Julius Caesar.
To backtrack, all was milk, honey, erudition and respect for culture in Hundert's class -until, that is, newcomer Sedgwick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of opportunistic as well as Philistine Virginia Senator (the always good Harris Yulin) defies the codes of the school, mocks culture, and slightly "corrupts" some classmates. The Professor makes it a small crusade to set the fellow right, seems to be succeeding, and, in his efforts, does something wrong himself for what he thinks is a good cause. Big mistake.
I'll skip the march of time and the revelations. Eventually we get a flash-forward to the 1990s, when Hundert, about to retire, has some problems. Also when he gets invited as the honored speaker in a class reunion, at the palatial home of Sedgwick, now a wheeler-dealer with political aspirations. But, as they say in France, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." The rich get richer. Period.
If anything is worse than a bad film, it is the plot-telling of its reviewers. I can only divulge that, in a sense, this movie awash in history, is also topical in our days of cheating and plagiarizing. And that the comparisons/contrasts with "Dead Poets Society" are tenuous. There are several good scenes and sequences in the film, but the work lacks a kind of coherence and verisimilitude. Kevin Kline is excellent in his role, but we see mostly his passion for the classics and none for his own life. This could be acceptable -the totally single-minded scholar-teacher -but then why does the story throw in a nebulous, super-sketchy love relationship with Elizabeth ( Embeth Davidtz,) the wife, then, much later, the divorced wife of a colleague. Her role is terribly underdeveloped. I can't remember seeing her husband on the screen, or guessing anything about Kline and Davidtz. Is this a politically correct ploy to imply vaguely that Hundert is not the stuff of boy-abusers?
St. Benedict's is in itself like a ghost school in many ways. The background is annoyingly lacking. What we see of it is minimal, save for the Classics class and its idealistic teacher. Not a frame, as I recall it, is devoted to other teachers and courses. Is this a case of tunnel vision? One redeeming point is to show the Indian pupil as excelling. It is high time to point out, even if indirectly, that non-white and non-American students are a huge force, in numbers and quality, in today's U.S.A.
Even so, the "intellectualism" of the movie is, overall , welcome in the increasing morass of idiotic comedies, idiotic action movies, stupid fantasies, improbable cop stories, cleavage flicks and low-I.Q. productions.