EMPEROR’S CLUB, THE(director: Michael Hoffman; screenwriters: from the short story The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin/Neil Tolkin; cinematographer: Lajos Koltai; editor: Harvey Rosenstock; music: James Newton Howard; cast: Kevin Kline (William Hundert), Emile Hirsch (Sedgewick Bell), Embeth Davidtz (Elizabeth), Rob Morrow (James Ellerby), Edward Herrmann (Headmaster Woodbridge), Paul Franklin Dano (Martin Blythe), Jesse Eisenberg (Fred Masoudi), Paul Franklin Dano (Martin Blythe), Rishi Mehta (Deepak Mehta), Harris Yulin (Senator Bell); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Andrew Karsch/Marc Abraham; Universal; 2002)
“The Emperor’s Club looks like a fossil preserved from the 1950s.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
“The Emperor’s Club” is set mostly in 1972 and is about a stuffy but reliable teacher of Roman and Greek classical history, William Hundert (Kevin Kline), at an elite private boarding school for boys somewhere on the East Coast called St. Benedict’s (the Emma Willard School for Girls in Albany was used for location shots of the school). It follows a long list of such earnest genre films from “Goodbye Mr. Chips” to “Dead Poets Society” that pay homage to dedicated teachers. There’s not much new here except a 21st century brand of cynicism that comes into play and a plot twist that fits in tidily to the films moralizing lecture throughout about character and virtue above all else in molding a child’s development into manhood, which are supposedly old-fashioned values to be revered and protected and passed on to each generation to keep civilization marching forward. Nothing from the outside seems to enter the insular school and its elegant stone building and fancy well-manicured lawn and idyllic lake, not even drugs or the Vietnam War protests that dominated the early 1970s youth culture are even hinted at. “The Emperor’s Club” looks like a fossil preserved from the 1950s.
Because “The Emperor’s Club” is so superbly acted with a well-conceived prissy performance by Kevin Kline and so well-crafted by director Michael Hoffman and the script is so finely tuned by Neil Tolkin from the short story by Ethan Canin, and it’s so beautifully photographed by Lajos Koltai, that it should appeal to those who crave such virtuous intelligent high-brow films and be shrugged off by those who know the story beforehand and could care less about its preachings (count me in this latter category).
The film’s title refers to a contest the history department has run for the last 73 years where the competitors are reduced to three finalist selected by their history teacher and the three smarties are dressed in togas in the auditorium when they appear before the entire school and their parents and are subjected to questions created by Hundert who also acts as the moderator. The questions are delved from his course study about Roman history. The last one standing after the others flub is crowned with a laurel wreath as “Mr. Julius Caesar” and honored forever by the school with their photo in the hallway.
The film’s main character, Mr. Hundert, might or might not be a great teacher (in any case, the film thinks he is), but he’s a bore. All he seems to do is offer quotes from the past leaders that oozes out of him as if they were machine messages on an answering service. His inspirational words of wisdom contain two vows he swears by: “Days that begin with rowing are better than days that don’t” and “A man’s character is his fate.” That should give you an idea where this flick’s oars are paddling to.
On the school’s opening day Hundert goes through his usual ritual of ac-customizing the boys to the way things are done at St. Benedict’s (the school boasts “a future who’s who of law, industry, finance and higher education”), which is the cue for the troublesome student to come in late and disrupt the class, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch). He’s the spoiled son of a powerful and gruff senator from the great state of West Virginia (Harris Yulin). Sedgwick’s impertinent behavior and sneering at Hundert’s old-fashioned values and the nudie magazines he shares with the other students attracts them to his side and leads to what goes for a class rebellion in this posh prep school. He tries to undermine the teacher’s values. Hundert thinks he can salvage this snakelike student by filling him with virtuous ideas, going out of his way to back him up, and encouraging him to do more scholarship. He even rigs the Julius Caesar contest by passing over the more qualified bookish Roman history student Martin Blythe (Dano) as one of the three finalist in favor of him. The other two finalists are a scholarly Indian student Deepak Mehta (Rishi Mehta) and the sharpie Fred Masoudi (Eisenberg). But the teacher is let down in his attempt to win Sedgewick over, as he’s caught cheating and the headmaster (Herrmann), to his disappointment, orders him to say nothing about it. He thereby loses Sedgewick over the next four years, but through his father’s influence he still gets into Yale despite his poor marks and goes on from there to become an industrial giant.
Hundert leads a stoic life. He’s only shown with one woman, his married woman colleague, Elizabeth (Embeth Davidtz), with whom he shows a romantic interest but settles for a platonic relationship. But she soon leaves with her hubby to England when he gets a lecture position at Oxford. This romantic introduction into the plot was never developed and never meant much, except in all probability to show that the bachelor wasn’t gay.
Hundert was just passed over for headmaster by his undercutting and shallow protégé, James Ellerbee, because the board says he’s a better fund raiser and people person, as the film returns to the point where it opened with the now gray-haired Hundert appearing at the request of Sedgewick in his Long Island mansion to have this unofficial class of 1976 reunion after 25 years. Sedgewick has proposed a challenge to have another “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest with the same rules and contestants and moderator. It now becomes a question if Sedgewick got character after all, or did the teacher fail to mold him properly into manhood and into someone whose leadership will make an important contribution in the world. The other question becomes if Hundert was compromised by going out of his way to favor Sedwick, so much so that he lost the other students.
Education gained through use of such outdated teaching methods and its emphasis on knowing dates and trivial facts above all else, I thought had long been discontinued as a way of teaching history. But according to this film, I’m wrong. It’s still alive and well. I find this kind of education comparable to being on a quiz show rather than having any significant educational value. But the film lost me for good, when I realized that I didn’t care how it resolved its big issue over the ideal teacher and the slimy Sedgewick. Both had issues I couldn’t deal with. Yet the film held my attention throughout as it tried to shade the characters and events, but it just had too empty of a ring for me to respond postively and grade this film as anything more deserving than a gentleman’s C.
REVIEWED ON 12/18/2002 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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