Review by Kim Hollis
November 20, 2002
You’ve seen this movie before. At least, you think you have. Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, School Ties, Lean on Me, Pay It Forward, Dangerous Minds…all have the commonality of being about some sort of educational figure making a difference in the lives of students. The Emperor’s Club doesn’t exactly tread any new ground, but while it contains plenty of the clichés for which movies of this particular genre have become known, it still manages to be compelling thanks to its individual parts.
The basic backbone of the story follows Mr. Hundert (Kevin Kline), a Western Civilization teacher who believes the morality instilled by the lessons taught by the great Greek and Roman emperors is vital to the development of the young men he teaches. His starry-eyed pupils think he’s oh-so-swell as they eagerly and voraciously take in the stories of Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius and a host of other rulers who paved the way for democracy. (What is never mentioned is that this is a private school that produces the students who will most likely be competing for spots at the top Ivy League schools and therefore must throw themselves head first into their schoolwork or be doomed to “mediocrity”.) Everything is peachy keen until Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of an influential senator, joins the class.
From there, you know the drill. Sedgewick is disruptive but charming, and all his fellow students love him. Mr. Hundert is up to the challenge, though, and works very, very hard to mold the young man into a model student. Surprisingly, the movie diverges from cliché from this point forward, so giving much else away would ruin the film; however, the best way to explain and prepare is that this movie has two very distinct acts, one that is light-hearted and fairly upbeat, followed by a darker and vaguely more insidious undertone for the second portion.
Despite the flaws in the story and over-reliance on the Dedicated Teacher story requirements, there’s still a lot to commend The Emperor’s Club. Kline is the foundation, naturally, and he turns in a sensitive and dynamic performance. Even as the dialogue and the action become cringe-worthy, he manages to keep the character grounded and believable. That’s not to say there aren’t some overly saccharine moments. They’re just more bearable thanks to his presence.
The cast includes some fine young performers, too. Of particular note are Hirsch and Jesse Eisenberg, both of whom are remarkably charismatic and engaging. Hirsch plays the bad boy with aplomb, immersing himself in the role and handling the more dramatic scenes as easily as the comic ones. Eisenberg’s Louis Masoudi is the boy who everyone knew in youth, the smart, popular, and generally all-around great kid. This character wouldn’t ordinarily stand out in a film of this type, but it’s just impossible not to notice Eisenberg’s charm.
On the other hand, two fine performers, Embeth Davidtz and Edward Herrmann are criminally underused. It feels as though both parts were either whittled down substantially or fell to the editing room floor; either way, their brief appearances just left me wanting more.
Another detail worthy of mention is James Newton Howard’s terrific score. The music is a lovely complement to the action of the film as it transpires, adding a touch of vigor, pomp and vitality.
By the time it’s all said and done, there’s no doubt that The Emperor’s Club is a film that has nothing but the best intentions, and for every manipulative moment there’s a counter-balancing heartfelt one. It’s also not a film that paints its points in simple black and white, and that added complexity makes a difference in the overall scheme of things. There are a number of places where it would have been quite simple to take the easy way out and go with convention, and the director and writers have to be credited for the willingness to take a few chances so that the story might be something deeper in the long run. It doesn’t quite succeed as a whole, but The Emperor’s Club provides some absorbing drama nonetheless.