Here is what I said to “The Emperor’s Club” while I watched it: “OK, movie, that’s fine. What you’re doing here is very nice. But I hope you don’t think we haven’t seen this before!”
Is a club for an emperor all that different from a society for dead poets?
One has difficulty believing the men behind “The Emperor’s Club” have not seen “Dead Poets Society,” or “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” or “Finding Forrester,” or any of the other earnestly inspiring but unmemorable student-mentor movies it resembles.
But it is equally difficult to believe that someone could make “The Emperor’s Club” without knowing they were treading a path that had already been worn from overuse.
This is the story of a passionate, beloved teacher at a private school who, yes, learns from his students as much as they learn from him. Does he inspire the youth? Heavens, yes. Does he spout an endless procession of platitudes like “A man’s character is his fate” and “The end depends upon the beginning”? Again, yes.
The teacher is William Hundert, played by a prim, precise Kevin Kline. Set at a boys’ school in the 1970s — there’s an all-girls school across the lake, of course — the story centers on Mr. Hundert’s attempts to maintain order in a classroom dominated by slacker Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the undermotivated, over-wealthy son of a senator.
Bell becomes a leader among students, who have been repressed into horrific nerdery by the school’s strictness and are glad to have an Id figure to guide them in the paths of teenage frivolity.
Hundert, meanwhile, is aghast at Bell’s waste of his potential and at how he influences the other students. But how to reach such a seemingly unreachable lad?
The director, Michael Hoffman, has worked with Kline twice before (“Soapdish” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), and “Emperor’s Club’s” glossy aura suits both men well. Kline, a gifted comedian, is allowed several laughs, and Hoffman has enough affection for his trite story to devote all his talents to it. It is just a heavy-handed lesson in integrity, but it’s certainly a colorful, shiny one.
However, the story also forces Hundert into an obligatory romance subplot, with an underused Embeth Davidtz. It is puzzling, almost funny, how unnecessary this storyline is.
What redeems the film are its irresistible performances — all the young actors are above-average — and its dignified, charming demeanor. The lesson being taught in the film is older than dirt, but having a new teacher refreshes it a little.
B- (1 hr., 49 min.; )