The Emperor's Club Movie Review
A routine aerial shot swoops down over the grounds of an architecturally classic boarding school while a buoyant, sanguine score bleats with insistently lyrical French horns in the opening moments of "The Emperor's Club." And that's all most moviegoers will need to divine everything there is to know about the picture's musty, fond-memory-styled milieu of plucky, Puckish schoolboys and the dedicated, kindly educator who inspires them.
It's a movie that seems motivated more by a desire to match mortarboards with "Dead Poets Society" and "Good Will Hunting" than by its own story. It's a movie of highly telegraphed archetypes slogging their way through clichés (the off-limits girls' school is just across the lake) and only-in-the-movies moments, like the climactic scholarly trivia contest in which the three smartest boys in school don togas and answer questions on stage about the minutiae of Roman history.
These settings, these characters and this narrative arc -- about a contentious teacher-student relationship -- are so familiar that while the movie is not inept or boring, it never feels real enough to inspire much more than a shrug in response.
Kevin Kline stars as Arthur Hundert, a respected, popular, good-natured but fastidious classics professor at St. Benedict's School for Boys, who in 1972 had his hands full with the insolent teenage son of an arrogant senator. Emile Hirsch ("The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys") plays Sedgewick Bell, the fresh-faced smart aleck who breezes into Hundert's class a few weeks into the fall semester with a chip on his shoulder and a brilliant mind being wasted on knavish behavior.
A disruptive influence on the other students, who all seem to think he's pretty cool, Sedgewick's habitual insubordination gets Mr. Hundert and the faculty into such a tizzy you'd think the school had never dealt with a discipline problem before. But since the kid's attention-getting antics outside Hundert's classroom aren't relevant to the plot, it's left up to the benevolent instructor to give the kid a single "a man's character is his fate" speech that turns him into a studious pupil worthy of his own hitting-the-books and upping-the-grades montage sequence.
Part of the story concerns the consequences of an ethical lapse on the part of Mr. Hundert, who becomes so enthusiastic about Sedgewick's newfound diligence that he changes a grade to get the boy into the trivia contest (in which the winner is crowned "Caesar"), cutting out a more deserving student in the process. It's only by virtue of Kevin Kline's inherent, nice-guy-mode likability (think "Dave" or "In and Out" sans the humor) that Hundert doesn't seem like a disgrace for the balance of the film. The script (by Neil Tolkin, whose resume highlight is the Pauly Shore flick "Jury Duty") certainly doesn't offer any good reason to sympathize with this decision.
In fact, Sedgewick probably would have been happy just to know how close he came to making the cut for the competition. But once he's in, it soon becomes clear to Hundert that the kid hasn't changed his spots after all, and hasn't learned anything about character and virtue.
While Kline acquits himself and his character quite well, Hirsh's performance is hit and miss. The young actor has some very strong moments, but his inexperience is obvious in fundamental ways, like how obvious it is he's hitting a stage mark for a dramatic pause in one scene. Most of the time, director Michael Hoffman ("One Fine Day," 1999's "A Midsummer Night's Dream") seems resigned to accept his telegraphed pouts, scowls and Leonardo DiCaprio-aping, devil-may-care smirks.
"The Emperor's Club" -- which is based on a short story called "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin -- is bookended by a present-day chapter in which a wealthy, conceited, politically ambitious adult Sedgewick Bell brings his classmates back together for a Caesar contest rematch. By offering a huge donation to St. Benedict's, he also ropes a retired Hundert into mediating the match (as was his custom) against his better judgement.
In its modern scenes (well cast with actors who seem very much like their teenage counterparts after 30 years of growth), the picture has a lot to say about our society's tendency to value flash over substance and affluence over integrity. But this message comes across in a rather trite, simplistic fashion -- and if the original Caesar contest felt like a theatrical concoction (which it did), this counterpart seems even more fabricated, especially since every key character takes part, as if they had all been clinging to that moment of high school for their entire lives.
It is exactly this kind of contrivance that betrays the movie's underlying lack of originality.