Thursday, December 5, 2002
This boys boarding-school story buries an interesting storyline about morality and the choices we make underneath such a mountain of cliches and borrowed images that it might more accurately be titled Mr. Chips off the Old Block. The movie re-teams director Michael Hoffman and leading man Kevin Kline, who worked together on Soapdish and A Midsummer Night''s Dream, but their alliance forged much better results in those two comedies than in this drearily told morality play.
With a title that replicates the sound of The Dead Poets'' Society, The Emperor''s Club is based on a short story titled "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin. Kline plays William Hundert, an assistant headmaster and classics professor at a private boys school in 1972. His passion is introducing the minds of young men to the lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and bringing their musty histories to life through the wearing of costumes and the performance of tableaux and such. All is going swimmingly with his new freshman class until the introduction midsemester of a new transfer student-Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of a West Virginia senator. Hundert and the willful Bell commence a power struggle for the hearts and minds of the other students. Bell''s good looks and defiance of authority make him an immediate hero in the eyes of the other students-and probably the audience as well.
Hundert embarks on a program of conduct designed to reach the younger man and turn him around. However, what begins as a few small compromises on Hundert''s part eventually mushrooms into one large rationalization that comes back to bite him on the ass 25 years later. In dramatic terms, Bell''s capitulation to good studenthood occurs at an unbelievably rapid clip, and the movie''s 25-years-later third act seemingly stretches on forever. Red herring characters such as the fellow teacher played by Rob Morrow and the married love interest played by Embeth Davitz are hardly necessary, so little do they contribute to the overall story.
Kline is at his Oxford best as the buttoned-down prof, although there''s a sense of the actor roiling underneath the character''s restraint. The Emperor''s Club would be a much better film had it not relied so heavily on a bombastic soundtrack (by James Newton Howard) for its emotional impact and spared itself some of the more overdone images of campus life (a scull on the river, a baseball through a window, students jostling in the hall after the posting of grades, etc.). In the end, The Emperor''s Club is purely plebian.