[Screen It]

(2002) (Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch) (PG-13)

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Drama: An idealistic teacher at an all boys academy tries to inspire his students, including a troublemaker, to better themselves and aspire to do great things with their lives.
William Hundert (KEVIN KLINE) is a teacher who's tried to inspire his various students over the past 34 years to better themselves and aspire to do great things with their lives. A practitioner of using prominent if long dead historical figures to demonstrate his points, Hundert has been invited by one of his former students, Sedgewick Bell (JOEL GRETSCH), to a reunion of sorts with him and his fellow former classmates.

As Hundert prepares for the weekend's activities, he remembers back to when he first met Sedgewick (EMILE HIRSCH) back in 1976 at St. Benedicts Academy for Boys. Working for Headmaster Woodbridge (EDWARD HERRMANN) and with Charles Ellerby (ROB MORROW), Hundert easily casts his academic spell over the likes of students Martin Blythe (PAUL DANO), Deepak Mehta (RISHI MEHTA) and Louis Masoudi (JESSE EISENBERG). Things change, however, with Sedgewick's arrival.

The son of U.S. Senator Bell (HARRIS YULIN), the boy is a natural troublemaker and it's not long before he's breaking the rules and disrupting Hundert's class. After a meeting with the Senator somewhat puts the boy in his place, Hundert - who's apparently having a fling with his married colleague Elizabeth (EMBETH DAVIDTZ) - takes it upon himself to encourage Sedgewick to better himself.

He also gets him to participate in the prestigious Julius Caesar contest and it's not long before Hundert must chose the three finalists. Faced with a daunting choice of upholding or bending the rules to help Sedgewick, Hundert makes a choice that could haunt him and have repercussions for years to come.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Although most students probably don't realize it at the time, the job - at least in theory -- of teachers, professors and other educators isn't just to teach facts, but also to inspire their charges to better themselves and do great things in life.

Not surprisingly, such people make for good movie characters since they have set ideals and goals, while their students, institutions and societal norms provide the necessary complications and conflict. All one has to do is think of films such as "The Paper Chase," "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "Dead Poets Society" for examples of that setup.

One can now add "The Emperor's Club" to that list. Designed to inspire and uplift viewers in the same manner as the teacher does for his students, the film will remind many viewers of that Peter Weir/Robin Williams Oscar-nominated film from 1989.

All of which means that you'll probably have the same reaction to this one - loving or hating the sentimentality and plot mechanics - as you did that previous picture. The filmmakers - director Michael Hoffman ("A Midsummer Night's Dream," "One Fine Day") and screenwriter Neal Tolkin ("Jury Duty," "License to Drive") - throw in some added character questionability on the part of the teacher, but the film otherwise pretty much stays on the same course.

To make such a film work, one obviously needs the right performer in the lead role and this one greatly benefits from having the talented Kevin Kline ("Life as a House," "Wild Wild West") as the idealistic but not squeaky clean educator. Not only does he look the part, but he also effortlessly makes one believe he's such a character at a private, 1970s era boys academy.

The problem is that despite certain individual characteristics and plot particulars, his character goes through most of the same motions we've seen before and then runs into a contrived third act that does neither him nor the film any good.

Since the filmmakers have fashioned the plot - based on Ethan Canin's short story "The Palace Thief" - in the old bookend fashion (where it starts in the present and then rewinds to the past events that obviously lead up to that), they must conclude it with the second half of that framing device. To say what happens would give away too much of the "surprises" that are to follow. Suffice it to say, most of them feel forced and unrealistic.

The same holds true for a certain pivotal character in the film. Emile Hirsch ("The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys") plays the standard, run of the mill troublemaking student who tests the teacher's will and patience. As in most such films, the obvious then occurs with the two immediately clashing and the teacher eventually getting through to the student and changing his outlook on life.

That's all fine and dandy - if a bit formulaic and predictable - and it does present a somewhat unique dilemma and choice for the teacher in one regard. The student's transformation, however, also feels contrived as the motivation - while present - simply isn't concrete enough to evoke such a radical change. Even so, Hirsch is otherwise believable and does a good job playing the part. Meanwhile, Joel Gretsch ("Minority Report," "The Legend of Bagger Vance") credibly embodies the character as an adult, although he's also dogged by some contrived material.

A subplot featuring Embeth Davidtz ("Thirteen Ghosts," "Bicentennial Man") as what appears to be the teacher's married lover isn't explained well enough to make things clear about what's going on between them. In the end, the whole thing does nothing for the film and easily could have been jettisoned with no ill effect.

Supporting performances from the likes of Paul Dano ("L.I.E." "The Newcomers"), Rishi Mehta (making his debut) and Jesse Eisenberg ("Roger Dodger") are solid, but the characters they inhabit are otherwise unremarkable which also holds true for the likes of Edward Herrmann ("The Cat's Meow," "The Lost Boys") and Rob Morrow ("Mother," "Quiz Show") in their respective roles.

Named for the ancient characters the teacher uses in his quest to better the students (rather than the poets in Williams' picture), the film will have its share of supporters and detractors. Its familiarity and troublesome third act, however, prevent it from being the high quality, feel good and inspirational film that it obviously wants to be. "The Emperor's Club" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 24, 2002 / Posted November 22, 2002

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