The Emperor’s Club
by Barry Meyer
Kevin Kline gives another stellar performance. Too bad rest of film does not match his level of quality.
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At the start of The Emperor’s Club, one of the young students reads a plaque over the door to his Greek History class. It’s a quote from a virtually unknown Greek King, who speaks of his list of conquers, but speaks nothing about the benefits. This King is unknown in history, explains the Professor, because “great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance.” The filmmakers could have learned a lesson from their own protagonist’s words.
The Emperor’s Club stars Kevin Kline as the ever proper William Hundert, a vigorously proficient teacher at an all-boy’s prep school. He seems to have a handle on his students, who seem to not be bothered by his drollness. It’s an easy ride for Hundert, he’s admired by his peers, his students are kept amused, and he has the passing fancy of a woman. All in all, he’s headed straight for the Head Master’s job, when the time is appropriate. Then comes Sedgwick (Emile Hirsch, The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys), the new boy on campus, a trouble maker right from the start. With a couple well timed hi-jinx, the delinquent gains the admiration of his classmates, and the attention of his teacher, who sees the troubled soul inside the pesky new kid, and is confounded when his usual tactics fail to bring the boy around. After a visit to Sedgwick’s father (the great character actor Harris Yulin), a prominent Senator, Hundert learns the root of his student’s woes after being chastised by the hotheaded politician. “You’re to teach my son, not to mold him. I will mold my own son.” Reflecting upon his own lesson to the class, Hundert decides to disregard the Senator’s direction, and aims to make an effort to become an influence on the troubled boys life—just as he lectured early on in the movie, “great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance.”
That central lesson, though, seems to be the downfall of this film. We witness an awful lot of inspiration—Sedgwick, the troubled and angry student, is inspired by Hundert to excel in his studies, and enters the Mr. Caesar contest, an academic challenge which crowns the student with the keenest knowledge of Greek History. But his inspiration is lost to the audience. Hundert hands a book to Sedgwick, a book that the teacher has kept since his own days at prep school, and then the boy is suddenly filled with enthusiasm. Although this moment is meaningful for the characters, it ultimately leaves the audience ungratified. Sedgwick is clearly motivated to study harder—we see him crack the books open and burn the midnight oil, and make a steady climb towards the top of the Mr. Caesar list of contenders—but we are left out of his emotional being. We are left just to watch the minutia of his actions of being inspired, never allowed to experience his fervor along with him. His ambition, and inspiration, is without significance. It’s not till later in the story that we understand what it was that Sedgwick was up to. But the character’s dubiousness is no reason why the audience should be cheated of the emotions running through the rest of the film. The let down of Sedgwick’s later actions would have greater impact if we were first allowed to be more involved in the boy’s enthusiasm.
The fault is not in the acting. Kline does a wonderful job giving the dull Hundert just enough charm to make him agreeable to his budding students. Emile Hirsch does his best Leonardo DiCaprio snotty-kid sneer, but is never allowed to give the troubled Sedgwick more depth than mere teenaged angst. The peripheral students make good with what they’ve been given, as well. The real culprit is the director’s inability to edit the story to better develop all of these characters. The students amount to nothing more that archetypical schoolboy kids, with none of them earning the remotest subplot. There was no interaction between Sedgwick and his father, which would have given better understanding to the boy’s behavior, and to why he acts out so greatly, or why he feels the need to impress Mr. Hundert. Instead, we are treated to uneventful pranks pulled by Sedgwick and his small band of followers, who Sedgwick has converted after showing them girlie pictures. A covert canoe trip across the river to the girl’s school is not the most original bit for this type of story, but it could be used to forward the plot, or maybe develop relations. Instead, it’s a stunt more out of American Pie, where the boys too easily persuade a group of school uniform clad girls to skinny dip in full view of the nuns. A highly unlikely scenario—since this story takes place in the pristine early 60s—which does nothing but titillate. Hey! I’m all for girls skinny-dipping, and if this was a Porky’s movie, it’d fit right in. But it’s not, and the stunt does nothing to forward the plot. And I’m tired of filmmakers putting frivolous, titillating scenes in their movies because they think they are being outrageous. To me, it shows that the filmmakers don’t have a handle on their story.
There is also the mysterious relationship between Hundert and a friend’s wife. They seem to have a silent connection, which turns out to be all too silent—it leads nowhere. Their relationship reveals very little and goes nowhere, and should have been left on the editing room floor, making room for the developing of other character relationships. This liaison also seems a bit askew, since the original angle on Hundert was that he was gay. Either way, it adds little to the story.
Some more focus on behalf of the filmmakers would have made this a nice coming of age story about the troubled boy, and about the uptight teacher who discovers that he can make a positive difference in his students lives. But instead, we have an inspirational story that forgets to inspire.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in New Jersey. He’s worked in the film and television biz for the past 10 plus years.
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