Judging from the critics’ reactions after the Denver International Film Festival, The Emperor’s Club will be this year’s whipping boy. Many fellow critics dismissed it as Mr. Holland’s Opus meets Dead Poets Society, only worse.
They’re absolutely right in their comparisons, but they’re wrong in their evaluation. Yes, The Emperor’s Club is manipulative. Maybe it’s even a little too sweet. But as manipulative feel-good movies go, The Emperor’s Club is pretty good.
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Kevin Kline plays Mr. Hundert, professor of Greek and Roman History at St. Benedict’s, a prep school for boys. He is strict, regimented, and humorless, and his unnaturally clear enunciation seems to be a joke at first.
The Emperor’s Club follows his 1976 class of students. It’s the usual mix of smart kids, spoiled kids, and scared kids, except for Mr. Sedgwick Bell. Mr. Bell (Emile Hirsch) is the stereotypical rebel. He is unkempt, he arrives late, and he makes jokes at Mr. Hundert’s expense in front of the class.
Not only was Bell born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he’s the son of a West Virginia senator. He’s moved from school to school and has landed here at St. Benedict’s, which to him is just another school. But Hundert sees potential in Bell. Behind the rebellious exterior, he believes, is a smart kid, a good kid, a kid who could amount to something.
The opportunity arises for Hundert to bend the rules a little to give Bell a leg up, and he takes it. Bell rises to the occasion momentarily, then falls back down.
We jump ahead to today, where Hundert has the chance to meet Bell again and reflect on the decisions they made back in ‘76. The climax, if you can call it that, is their evaluation of those decisions, and of what they reveal about human nature.
Sweating the Small Stuff
The Emperor’s Club actually is a little too syrupy-sweet. When Hundert agrees to play baseball with his students, the moment is so contrived that you can almost hear his hard shell cracking. The pacing, the music, the drama of The Emperor’s Club all feel deliberately melodramatic.
But where The Emperor’s Club rises above this pap is in the details. For example, after Hundert bends the rules to help Bell, the very next shot is of the boy who would have gotten the benefit had the rules not been bent, sitting under a tree moping. Director Michael Hoffman chooses to show, rather than ignore, the consequences of a melodramatic scene.
At the film’s climax, Hoffman again gets the details right. One would expect the lesson in a feel-good drama to be painted in black and white: good guys win and bad guys fall. But that’s not what happens. The movie’s consequences are more anticlimactic, and more true to life. At the end of this movie, we’re forced to look for a satisfying moral in the details. There is one, and it’s more humble than you’d expect in this kind of movie, and that makes it resonate longer and ring truer.
One can praise Kevin Kline for bringing Hundert to life, or point out that Rory Culkin plays the same character as Hirsch, only better, in Igby Goes Down. But the discussion surrounding The Emperor’s Club belongs on its too-sweet heart, and the brain that keeps that heart in check. It’s not Dead Poets Society or Mr. Holland’s Opus, but it’s no worse.