THE EMPEROR'S CLUB
Director: Michael Hoffman
Cast: Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Jesse Eisenberg, Paul Franklin Dano, Rishi Mehta, Embeth Davidtz, Rob Morrow, Edward Herrmann, Harris Yulin, Joel Gretsch, Steven Culp, Patrick Dempsey, Rahul Khanna
MPAA Rating: (for some sexual content)
Running Time: 1:49
Release Date: 11/22/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
At the heart of The Emperorís Club is the sad story of a man who has lived his life to expect certain virtues in the characters of men of power, as displayed by the great rulers and thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome, only to discover that the tides have turned and such standards have all but disappeared. At a glance, the film seems to be a retread of Dead Poetís Society, but they really only share the prep school setting. The Emperorís Club is about the teacher, not the students. Itís also a pretty strong indictment of the American educational and political system, specifically the idea that oneís standing in society is not about what you know but about who you know. Admittedly, none of this is new ground, but the film focuses on its central characterís discovery of these new "virtues," making the whole thing seem fresh from our standpoint. This is a man who does not simply teach history; he lives according to itóor at least its idealóand believes it says something about a timeless human potential.
That man is William Hundert (Kevin Kline), a Classics professor and the assistant headmaster of St. Benedictís. The students are not only here to be educated but also to be molded and to develop strong character. The fall session of 1972 is running smoothly until the arrival of a young rapscallion named Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of a prominent West Virginia senator. He obviously doesnít want to be at St. Benedictís, and as a result, his rebellion attracts many other students who begin to join him in breaking school rule and undermining authority. Hundert sees potential in Bell and understands the frustration of having a cold, unreceptive, and busy father. Hundert accepts Bellís rebellious tendencies as a call for help and begins to take him under his wing. The school is very enthusiastic about the upcoming Mr. Julius Caesar competition, in which a series of essays determine the placement of three finalists who ultimately partake in a sudden death trivia contest. With a little encouragement, Hundert believes he can break through to the unrealized potential in Bell.
Now at this point, we figure we have the filmís number, but it takes an unexpected turn that sets up something much more pressing. Hundert begins making concessions for Bell; we question his academic objectivity and whether Bellís progress is based on genuine improvement or the professorís sympathy. This is not the inspirational story the premise and setup establish, and even the title, which seems to allude to some elite and honorable club, is misleading. The film is based on a short story by Ethan Canin, which possesses a much more appropriate title: ďThe Palace Thief.Ē The events in their isolated world implicate the much larger picture of American social standing. Here, the molders of future leaders are compromising their values, leading to more and more compromises until the whole thing becomes tainted. The "old school" thinking of the first and foremost significance of education is replaced with concerns for fundraising, as represented through fellow teacher James Ellerby (Rob Morrow). Now the pieces are in place for two thieves to remain in the palace and make their respective moves, and in a terrible twist of irony, both find themselves in prime position because of Hundertís naÔvetť concerning the moral character of others.
The filmís themes are hit home rather heavily by the end, but itís easily forgivable because the movie goes out on a limb to make some valid points. The focus of the screenplay by Neil Tolkin is a bit rough around the edges. Tolkin spends too much time with the boys themselves when we want more of Hundertís character and dilemma. In this way, we are meant to think the story is some kind of happy look into the lives of repressed boys waiting to be freed. A love interest for Hundert gives him just thatóa love interestóbut has little other bearing on his character development. Eventually the script achieves the bridging of childhood mischief and adult fraud and traces a life of unearned privilege to an ending of severe disillusionment. The young actors are charming and effective, and thereís actually a bit of pleasure in seeing their characters grown up for the final act. The film belongs to Kevin Kline, whose intelligence as an actor and in general is always on display.
The Emperorís Club is much smarter and more attentive than it first sets out to be. The missteps are rather apparent, but the film is constantly defying expectations. Even the ending somehow squeezes in a bit of hope after the regretful sadness of the storyís true ending. It has a few very important ideas floating around, though, and ideas are always more entertaining than sentiment.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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