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The Emperor's Club

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Emperor's Club

Starring: Kevin Kline, Rob Morrow
Director: Michael Hoffman
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 108 Minutes
Release Date: November 2002
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Steven Culp, Roger Rees, Joel Gretsch, Patrick Dempsey, Embeth Davidtz, Edward Herrmann, Paul Franklin Dano, Harris Yulin

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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Teaching at an inner-city high school may not be the life- threatening job faced by New York City firefighters, but that profession is considered by some to be the most difficult and stressful of all. No wonder so many idealistic young people are attracted to the private schools, expensive for students but paying a poorer wage to its staff than government-supported institutions. If teaching at an exclusive prep school becomes as draining and frustrating as doing the same at a government school, what's the point of taking the pay cut? This is what came to mind as I watched Michael Hoffman's "The Emperor's Club," based on Ethan Canin's short story whose themes can be traced back to Dr. Thomas Arnold's "Tom Brown's Schooldays." Dr. Arnold, the father of the great poet Matthew Arnold, believed that children were not valuable souls in their own right but only half-formed adults who needed to be molded into shape. You can't blame Arthur Hundert (Kevin Kline) for agreeing as his job at an elite) school turns from idyllic to stormy once an obnoxious kid (Steven Culp) changes his alpha status.

Did I say stormy? If that brings to mind the New York City brats in Richard Brooks' 1955 movie "Blackboard Jungle," forget it. The troublemaker in Michael Hoffman's film based on a short story in Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief" would be called a goody-two- shoes if he were in a big city academy. If commenting on the "dresses" (merely togas, actually) that the young men in the third form class of Classics instructor Arthur Hundert (Kevin Kline) constitutes class disruption, give me 35 kids like Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), who begins his relationship as Mr. Hundert's nemesis and ends, of course, as teacher's pet. What else did this boy, the son of an obnoxious United Senator (Harris Yulin) that eventually led to the special call that the teacher paid to his dad? Why, he exposed his fellow fifteen-year-olds to a Playboy- type magazine! (This, remember, was not in 1950 or in Victorian England, but in the early 1970s, during hippie heydays, when cool teens were more likely to participate in orgies than in bothering to read about them second hand through girlie magazines.)

"The Emperor's Club" is a sincere movie, exquisitely acted by Kevin Kline (no surprise there), using a script over which Michael Medved and William Bennett would jump for joy. It has a PG-13 rating, probably because one of the kids says a vulgarism not in class but in the dormitory of St. Bartholomew's Academy just once, mind you, probably said more to allow the producers to avoid an uncool PG rating than to titillate the teens. Like Robin Williams' character in Peter Weir's 1989 film "Dead Poets Society, Mr. Hundert is a teacher of the humanities, specifically the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. Like the older people in all of Ethan Canin's tales from the book "The Palace thief," he appears at the beginning of the story, graying hair and glasses, looking back over his life and wondering just how much impact he made during his career. His major disappointment is in his shaping of the character of Sedgewick Bell, though in the picture's major surprise we find out just why Hundert considers himself a failure in that one case to be a sad one.

There are several flaws in Hundert's teaching methodology. He tells the politician father of the troublesome lad that the purpose of learning classic civilizations is to give the boys role models, people who have contributed greatly to their societies. Yet from what we see of his classroom questioning, he attempts to elicit merely short answers from the kids giving us the impression that what's really important to this academy is a knowledge of names and dates. Hundert makes a big deal of an annual contest to which parents and the rest of the school are invited to name Mr. Julius Caesar, the three students who, having passed a series of quizzes, are given the stage and asked a series of increasingly difficult questions. Here again, the questions demand mere short answers, demonstrating no knowledge of what made these people role models. While the classroom abounds in statuettes and paintings The Trial of Socrates, a bust of Plato and another of Socrates there are no discussion of what lies behind each of these works of art. When Hundert is passed over for the job of headmaster when the current holder of that office (Edward Herrmann) dies, he tenders his resignation, notwithstanding the apt counsel of the school's directors that Hundert is a teacher and would not make a good fund-raiser. And when Hundert states that leaders who merely pillaged but contributed nothing to their societies are forgotten, I expected Attila the Hun and Genghiz Khan to rise up from their graves and file rebuttals.

"The Emperor's Club" is a surprising find in yet another season of cynicism, featuring anarchic blockbuster movies like "XXX," sado-masochistic works like "Secretary," and mindless comedies like "Who is Cletis Tout." Though generally as sentimental as Sam Wood's 1939 "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" which garnered an Oscar for Robert Donat in his portrayal of a shy schoolteacher who devotes his life to "the boys" the ironic conclusion saves "The Emperor's Club" from mawkishness. Whatever you think of Neil Tokin's adaptation of Canin's fiction, you'll marvel at Kevin Kline's performance.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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