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The Emperors Club (PG-13)
Universal Pictures
Official Site
Director: Michael Hoffman
Producers: Marc Abraham, Andrew Karsch
Written by: Neil Tolkin
Cast: Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Patrick Dempsey, Steven Culp, Embeth Davidtz, Joel Gretsch, Edward Herrmann, Rob Morrow, Harris Yulin

Rating: out of 5

In the tradition of films contrived to mythologize inspiring teachers, The Emperor’s Club falls short of making the grade. If only the protagonist was more complex, like John Keating ( Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society. If only he taught at a less privileged, more grit-filled school, like Mr. Clark (Morgan Freeman) in Lean On Me. If only…

Mr. Hundert (Kline), a devoted prep school teacher, believes that greatness equals contribution to society. He tries to instill this tenet into the impressionable, obedient minds at St. Benedictus School for Boys. Enter Sedgewick Bell (Hirsch from The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys), the fractious and unruly senator’s son, whose mere presence incites disorder. Sedgewick is a constant impetus for rule-breaking, and according to stereotype, his grades are sub-par. Despite his bad-kid status, Hundert sees promise in the boy, and attempts to permeate the young boy’s rough exterior and mold him into a more mindful student.

Winning the “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest is the goal of the boys’ academic aims, and Hundert encourages Sedgewick to participate fully in the required essay quizzes. As a result, he does deviate from his usual slacker mind-frame, but still comes up a little short of qualifying in the top three for the main competition. Against his own qualms, Hundert fudges the boy’s cumulative score, allowing Sedgewick to undeservingly enter the final competition. To Hundert’s dismay, however, the boy cheats his way to almost winning.

Over two decades later, Hundert, much to his chagrin, is passed up for dean of the reputable prep school. He questions his personal worth and value as a teacher, and the outcome of the “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest 25 years ago still perturbs his otherwise honest mind.

Thematically, the text of the film takes up an interesting issue regarding the inner struggles of teachers. “Those who don’t do, teach,” the adage goes. But to Hundert, those who don’t do, don’t contribute, so where does that leave his life in the long list of great men who have preceded him? Eventually, Hundert realizes his positive effects on most of his former students supercede his one failure with insolent Sedgewick.

Throughout the film’s entirety, Academy Award winning Kline is a commanding force in every scene. Relative newcomer Emile Hirsch proves to be a scene stealer as well. The two actors combat for the audience’s full attention on several levels, and the resulting cinematic tension is engaging.

Unfortunately, the tightly woven fabric of the film, constructed in the St. Benedictus class of 1976 atmosphere, frays in the final third of the film, which is set over two decades later. First off, the holes in the story line get stitched together too fast. Hundert gets married, but where’s the love? Former student James Ellerby gets the much- coveted dean position, but when was it coveted in the first place? Certainly not in any prior scene in the movie. Mr. Hundert’s characterization falls flat, and the complexity of the film fumbles into simplicity.

Secondly, Sedgewick, now a mover and a shaker in the business world, reunites his fellow classmates for a rematch of the “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest on his sprawling Long Island estate. The morals of the story become overt and pedantic in this setting. Lying is bad. Once a cheater, always a cheater. We get it. Sadly, the implicit nature of the storytelling present beforehand is lost in this section of the film.

And finally, The Emperor’s Club has memorable performances, but lacks a cohesive, fully developed narrative structure, so all recommendations must point to video.

—Sandra M. Ogle


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