Good-bye, Mr. Chips. Hello, Mr. Hundert. If we can judge by the new Kevin Kline vehicle, The Emperor's Club, then the notions that a self-sacrificing boarding school teacher can enrich the lives of his students while subsisting in relative emotional misery himself -- and that the terrible furies of adolescence are reduced by a knowledge of Latin -- remain alive (if not particularly well). Adapted from a short story by Ethan Canin, Emperor gives off a distinctly musty odor -- not least because Kline's character, a professor of ancient history named William Hundert, personifies educational ideals so alien to 99 percent of today's American teenagers (and, for that matter, 97 percent of their teachers) that they represent antiquity in themselves.
For one thing, the utterances of Aristotle and the deeds of the Caesars remain, in Mr. Hundert's view, as vital today as they were in the day of toga fashion and poisoned banquet wine. All right. Fine. But as a result, Hundert has become, from the soles of his brogans to the school crest on his blazer, a sanctimonious moralist: Not one nasty speck of relativism has seeped into his noble head. Behavior cops like William Bennett and holier-than-thou TV preachers like Jerry Falwell will love this movie. So will belligerent absolutists like the current White House occupant -- even if he doesn't know Constantine from canola.
Like the leafy Gothic enclaves inhabited by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and by professors Michael Redgrave and Albert Finney in the two movie adaptations of The Browning Version, Emperor's fictitious St. Benedict's School is a repository of old values, administered by old-fashioned teachers to the offspring of old families. The bulk of the movie takes place in the 1970s, but it may as well be the 1770s. After all, the big annual event at St. Benedict's is something called the Mr. Julius Caesar contest, in which well-scrubbed boys wearing striped neckties answer ball-breaking questions about the Pax Romana and the rhyme schemes of Catullus. The moderator? None other than the beloved Mr. H., who doesn't distinguish between inspirational teaching and intrusive preaching.
The Emperor's Club
Like all prep school dramas, this one provides an assortment of variously troubled teenagers (the young cast includes Paul Dano, Jesse Eisenberg and Rishi Mehta). But the central conflict pits Hundert against the new boy on campus, a magnetic, wise-cracking rebel with a comically patrician name: Sedgewick Bell (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys' Emile Hirsch). The son of a flinty U.S. senator, Bell immediately intrigues his classmates with his trunkful of French girlie magazines and his bold skill at defying authority. Meanwhile, Hundert is determined to build Bell's character and demonstrate the value of hard work. That's his real job, as he sees it: He's a molder of men. When Bell begins to blossom, Hundert declares, "He's come out of the darkness into the light."
Oh, yeah? Despite his immersion in Hundert's high-minded, living-in-the-wrong-century nobility -- which, in Kline's fussy performance, comes off as artificial and self-righteous -- Sedgewick Bell still prefers the darkness. After Hundert momentarily compromises his own sacred principles by slipping Bell into the Mr. Julius Caesar finals ahead of a worthier contestant, the wayward boy wins the thing by cheating. Hundert is devastated. And there the tale might end -- on a note of cool irony -- if not for the undeniable urges of screenwriter Neil Tolkin and director Michael Hoffman (a former Rhodes Scholar who studied the classics at Oxford) to extend their morality play into a third act.
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To wit: Flash-forward 25 years, to the reunion of the St. Benedict's class of 1976. The old schoolboys are now a who's who of industry, law and education, not least Sedgewick Bell (now played by Joel Gretsch), who heads a multibillion-dollar corporation and, opportunistic as ever, has his eye on the U.S. Senate, just like Dad. But first, for some reason, he needs to clear his name and his conscience with a replay -- legit this time -- of the Mr. Julius Caesar contest. Once more, Hundert moderates. Need we reveal the outcome? Suffice to say that the moviemakers force-feed us one last plate of ethical spinach: their speculations on the roots of corporate scandal, political malfeasance and cultural decline. Meanwhile, they indulge themselves -- unwittingly or not -- in what neoconservatives are fond of calling, with their customary puffed-up certainty, "moral clarity." As for the terminally virtuous Mr. Hundert, who's a bundle of principles rather than a real human being, he declines even in the end to descend from his pulpit. After spending two hours with him, you won't need a bath for a month.