Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:19 - Released 11/22/02

Kevin Kline continues to show his depth as an actor in Michael Hoffman’s prep school drama The Emperor’s Club, with a remarkably subtle and textured performance as the teacher of classics who tries to instill in his young protégés the importance of understanding ancient history. Unfortunately the film is not exactly equal to Kline’s performance; although its theme is a thought-provoking study on what exactly it means to succeed or fail as a teacher, its screenplay (by Neil Tolkin, based on the short story The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin), teeters on the edge of over-sentimentality, occasionally just going ahead and falling in. With a style not unlike the 1989 Robin Williams vehicle Dead Poets Society, it tells the story of a man so passionate about his subject (in this case, ancient Greek and Roman culture) that his students, for the most part, become caught up in it as well; however, in this story one comes along whose attitude clashes so badly with the teacher’s, it begins to disrupt his entire well-ordered universe.

Kline plays Professor William Hundert, who in 1976 is apparently the most respected member of the faculty at St. Benedict’s Academy for Boys—in fact, the film practically makes it look like he’s the only instructor, except for the headmaster (played by Edward Herrmann) and a Latin professor (Rob Morrow), neither of whom we ever see in a classroom. Although Prof. Hundert presumably has more than one class per year, we only see one, focusing primarily on four youths whose academic achievement puts them in the running for the school’s prestigious Mr. Julius Caesar award. This honor is granted once each year to the student who not only gets excellent grades in the classroom, but also wins a public trivia contest about ancient civilizations. Three of the boys, Martin Blythe (Paul Franklin Dano), Deepak Mehta (Rishi Mehta), and Fred Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg), are all serious and diligent scholars until the arrival of a new student named Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the spoiled son of a U.S. senator, whose intellectual brilliance is matched only by his contempt for authority. Soon Sedgewick’s attitudes (not to mention his love for cigarettes, alcohol, porn mags, and various other contraband) have rubbed off on his classmates and all the guys are playing pranks and flouting the rules. Finally, however, after a revelatory meeting with Sedgewick’s father (played in full-blown Rich Bastard mode by Harris Yulin), Prof. Hundert is able to calm the boy down by convincing him that he has a shot at the coveted Caesar title. What happens at the competition, however, has a staggering impact on Hundert’s self-image, his career, and his outlook on life.

This is one of those movies that, although it’s supposed to end on a positive note, has a melancholy, what’s-the-use feel that pervades everything up to about 5 minutes before the closing credits. The final third of the film takes place in the present (or rather, 2001), when the students re-convene for a sort of reunion and are all played by different actors, none of whom look like they are 25 years older than their former selves. This final act gives the impression that things are going to be more positive, but it ends up hammering home the same depressing points made by the preceding portion, and does so with some truly bad dialogue and syrupy sentimentality. Still, Kline’s performance, like it did in Life As A House, cuts through the treacle with astounding effectiveness, as if he is using his technique willfully to defy the writers’ ill-advised intentions. It is truly fascinating to watch the subtlety with which his facial expressions evolve during his conversations with other characters; he is able to show us the wheels turning inside his mind with a clarity unmatched by most actors working today. Good work is also done by the 17-year-old Hirsch, and by Embeth Davidtz, whose miniscule role seems to exist for the sole purpose of making sure we understand that Hundert is not gay.

This is obviously not the first story of its kind to hit the big screen; neither is it the best. But the presence of Kevin Kline is as much reason to see it as is necessary. Good acting can cover a multitude of sins, and that is exactly what it does here. ***½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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