Pros: It looks pretty
Cons: Screenplay, performances, score
Teachers are some of the most seriously underappreciated individuals in this society. They dont earn the money, have the resources or get the respect they deserve for the job that they do. There are teachers from my own past that I both liked and admired, and the people who teach my children are some of the most gifted individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Any movie that celebrates the role of the teacher should be watched, and applauded for giving credit to the profession. Any movie, that is, except The Emperors Club. This movie should be stricken from the annals of teacher movies, given a great big F on its final exam, made to wear a dunce cap and held up to ridicule in front of the other movies.
The Emperors Club tells the story of William Hundert (Kevin Kline), aka Mr. Hundert, a teacher of Classical Greek and Roman History at the prestigious St. Benedicts Academy for boys. Mr. Hundert is very well regarded, extremely well regarded, well regarded to the point of sycophancy, by both staff and students. His classroom is the very model of excellent, caring discipline combined with the teaching of the most important figures in history, and their incredibly virtuous virtuousness. He teaches of history, of leadership, of democracy, and most important to him, of character. In short, hes just a swell teacher.
As we move into the main story, a young man by the name of Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) enters St. Benedicts. Sedgewick is a prankster, the son of a powerful U.S. Senator, who cares little for either his studies or his character. He has the audacity to challenge the vaunted Mr. Hundert, and for a moment or two, it looks like Hr. Hundert will rise to this juvenile bait, and react in a less than perfectly mature manner. But he manages to keep this childish impulse in check, for he is far more concerned with shaping this young man into a man of character. Helping him reach his potential. So Mr. Hundert reaches out to Sedgewick Bell, helping him, encouraging him, believing in him. And he is rewarded many times over for his efforts. Or is he?
Mr. Hundert is just a great guy. A really great guy. A perfectly moral, always controlled, annoying as hell guy. He is a guy without flaw. He seldom gives in to foolish human temptation. And if he does (gasp!) hes sure to confess and make amends. Attraction to a married woman, temptation to stoop to the level of a rebellious student, an almost irresistible urge to defy the headmaster (Edward Herrman). He overcomes them all. He is the most righteous, moral, upstanding man of great character to ever exist. Too bad hes also a boring, unidimensional, arrogant stuffed shirt without the smallest human frailty to make him interesting. Throughout the movie, we keep waiting for some sign that this guy is a member of our species. But hes not. He makes no mistakes for which he doesnt atone, he has perfect insight into himself and others, although sometimes in retrospect. He always, in the end, does exactly the right thing for exactly the right reasons. He is as dull as dirt. Hes not a character. Mr. Hundert is a flat, predictable caricature of a teacher that diminishes the real life teachers that struggle to retain their humanity, dignity and sanity in a world of small people without the maturity to appreciate them. Mr. Hundert is unaffected by all those sniggling problems that confront mortal men, temptation, selfishness, inadequacy. His only concern is the well-being and moral fiber of the students. If youve not already barfed, feel free to do so now.
The children who he teaches are not much better, nor are the rest of the staff. Each is nothing but a parody of a troublemaker, a nerd, a follower, a brain. Its like the St Breakfasts Club for boys. Not one of these characters is given more than a cursory swipe with the depth pencil, each simply playing to his stereotype and nothing more. Even Sedgewick Bell, our story catalyst, is only a bland, unimpressive shell of a troublemaker. Mr. Hundert seems to see Sedgewick as a terribly troubled lad. Even though the story takes place in 1976, Im afraid all that means is that Mr. Hundert doesnt get out much. A little mouthing off in class, or a ridiculous prank with some slamming books, youd think these were the highest of high crimes. Even in the privileged corners of the academic world, a brat must enter on occasion, but apparently never one with the temerity to disrupt a class by the gallant and character filled Mr. Hundert. The rest of the staff is generally absent, with the exception of the smarmy James Ellerby (Rob Morrow career skyrocketing with this one!) who is only really there as yet another obstacle over which Mr. Hundert will eventually barrel with his truck full of colon bursting moral fiber.
Kevin Kline is simply horrid. And I like Kevin Kline. But in this movie he is wooden, bland and boring. He gives Mr. Hundert no dimension at all. He has little to work with, clearly, as I cant imagine the screenplay (Neil Tolkin) leaves a lot of room for interpretation of this most amazingly anal character. Even so, there is no spark to this performance. Kline looks almost pained as he utters one cliché after another. The voice over narration used at the beginning to introduce the main story, told in its entirety in flashback, is, frankly, hideous. Slow, deliberate, lacking in inflection or warmth, its horrible. Even his physical bearing is lacking in any sort of diversity or humanity. He moves at all times like he has a stick up his a_ss, and at one speed. Slow. He is deliberate in all his movements, all his speech, all his everything. Never is there any true passion even when he is supposedly teaching about his most beloved subject. Its all given the same moderate, controlled inflection. All the same, all even keel, bland, bland, bland. The boys who play the students, not worth mentioning individually, adequately mouth their lines. Not a thing makes any of them, even the scoundrel Sedgewick Bell, stand out in any way. For young actors they all do fairly well, but with such weak material, they dont really have a chance to give good performances. There just isnt anything to work with. How can we expect a young adult actor to shine when hes saying things like Lets see how they did it old school, Mr. Hundert? We cant. Hopefully all these kids will get a chance to be in a better film, at which time they will be able to show whether or not they can actually act.
The one thing the film does right is look good. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai does a great job of filming the masses of students in their red blazers, the old-fashioned and ornate Academy buildings, the somewhat claustrophobic schoolroom. Unfortunately, looking good is all the film does right. Even the score stands out as irritating, overly loud and melodramatic. For a movie about a man who is rigid to the point of absurdity, the soaring symphonic interludes at what are supposed to be dramatic moments just come off as false and without justification within the film. The score is supposed to support the emotion of the moment, not substitute for it.
Director Michael Hoffman has, unfortunately, served up a big pot of oatmeal in place of a steaming bouillabaisse. Rather than an interesting mix of characters with unique identities and foibles and experiences, we get this single boring, bland, flawless man to whom all the other characters defer. Yes, he is most wonderful, but when has that single ingredient, added over and over and over again, ever made for an interesting dish? The Emperors Club has no bite, no spice, no flavor. Not even really as exciting as oatmeal, it is the pablum of movies. In a direct quote from the film: "This is a story without any surprises". I cant think of a better summation.