The Emperor's Club
Director: Michael Hoffman. Cast: Kevin Kline, émile Hirsch, Joel Gretsch, Rob Morrow, Paul Dano, Steven Culp, Embeth Davidtz, Edward Herrmann, Patrick Dempsey, Roger Rees. Screenplay: Neil Tolkin (based on the short story "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin).

How's this for a backhanded compliment, though I promise it is intended as a compliment: The Emperor's Club is a great Kevin Kline movie for people who hate Kevin Kline movies. For all his loyal Boomer-age fans and his "legitimate theater" credentialing, I'm not sure there is a major actor of Kline's generation and temperament whom I find consistently less interesting. In all of his incessant retreads to narcissistic bourgeois dramedy—harking back to The Big Chill but extending to recent efforts like the risible Life As a House and the highly overrated The Ice Storm, Kline often seems to combine the prodigious self-awareness of Billy Crystal, the gaseous white-collar macho of bad William Hurt, and the clammy faux-sincerity of Robin "Serious Mode" Williams. In fact, like Williams', Kline's likability suffered drastically when he grew hell-bent on smothering his comic gifts beneath layers and layers of midlife-crisis pathos. The Emperor's Club is Kline's third collaboration with the director Michael Hoffman, and the downward arc from their delicious farce Soapdish to the flavorless mugging of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream did not augur well for this latest.

Making matters worse, The Emperor's Club looks to position a star-director duo I mistrust in a genre that provokes even greater skepticism: the miracle-teacher nostalgia piece. As a student and educator myself, I am always acutely aware of the wide chasm between the real-life sensations of exceptional classroom mentorship and the often stultifying mawkishness of its onscreen impersonations. And since Robin "Serious Mode" Williams virtually sprang full-blown from this very filmic tradition, The Emperor's Club seems truly and fatally star-crossed.

But early reviews insisted that this picture was different, and I tentatively believed them, and they were right. In fact, it's that prim cockiness of Kevin Kline's, his permanent air of richly but silently congratulating his own actorly gestures, that The Emperor's Club leaps out to attack. It is brave of Hoffman and screenwriter Neil Tolkin, working from an Ethan Canin short story, to wage this stealth attack on a beloved genre while maintaining the serene, reassuring surfaces for which such tales are known. Blazered boys drawing reprimands for veering off the sidewalks, spontaneous orations in Latin, owl-eyed bachelors punting alone at dawn—the hallmarks are all here. But the mimicry of convention increasingly feels like the subjective projection of Mr. Hundert, the teacher played by Kline. Though he'd never publicly admit it, Hundert is acutely aware of being the beloved linchpin of the St. Benedick faculty, the teacher most likely to set young minds afire on subjects that the creepy, crawly world outside would spurn: Cicero, Socrates, the Carthaginian generals. With a strained combination of humility and arrogance, he has come to anticipate the moment when a new crop of pupils will feel the flush of antiquity uncovered, a scholarly love affair for which Hundert—the type of man who uses adjectives like "learned"—will be both matchmaker and object: he'll show them a new love, and they'll love him for it. They always do.

Pride in a job is one thing, but Hundert has an almost helpless way of subliminally confessing his need for adoration, his iron grip over a classroom environment the students are convinced is of limitless horizons. Hundert jokes "spontaneously" to his class on the subject of tyranny, "which is the system of our class, and it works!" He speaks to a pupil's parent of his own desire to mold that child, betokening a presumptuousness as discomfiting as the father's refusal to permit it. The good instructor proudly walks the dormitory halls and pops through the bedrooms at lights-out, with no more licentious motive than what I suspect is a fervent, sexless wish to be the last face his boys see before they sleep. Hundert—single, unrelaxed, in love with a colleague's wife—has no idea how weird this all is, how profoundly he relies on his adolescent charges for approval. He needs to see reflected in their faces that he is indispensable, a distinction he craves even as his expertise in bygone eras and mostly-forgotten leaders forever implies that he isnít.

From this central irony, The Emperor's Club unravels most of its impressive tensions and conflicts. Even the troublesome student Sedgewick Bell, a spoiled politicianís son played by émile Hirsch of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, only seems like Hundertís antagonist; his real enemies throughout The Emperor's Club are the increasingly glaring mismatches between what he knows about himself and what he wishes he were like. It is troubling to Hundert to finally realize he, too, wants to be liked by Sedgewick, the trouble-maker who has drawn Hundertís entire class under his deleterious influence. The teacher tries to fight the shame in this impulse by imagining he can reform Sedgewick—steal his way into the boyís heart so that he can change whatís in that heart. For a while, Hundert seems to succeed, and then it is crushingly evident that he hasnít. The resulting dismay, as Hundert confronts both the limits of his powers and the limitlessness of his naïveté, quickly rings like an echo through every corridor of his life: romantically, professionally, ethically. The pictureís lengthy final sequence, set 25 years after the main events of the plot, stays remarkably loyal to the themes of the narrative, even as it seems to open new possibilities for several characters to redeem themselves. Some viewers may wonder why Hundert would even conceive of participating in the climactic tournament whose primary beneficiary will be his greatest nemesis. But this, too, is a sharp and important irony: Hundert more than anything wants a unique role in life, and the role assigned to him by the older Sedgewick in these climactic scenes—however tokenistic, even demeaning—couldnít possibly be played by anyone else. Finally, the teacher really is important to Sedgewick, even if the terms are not ideal. The conclusion of The Emperor's Club gives its protagonist everything he desires and everything he regrets about himself in a single, well-staged sequence.

Sure, The Emperor's Club seems pagebound in its unabashed prioritization of theme and character over more innovative formal devices or distinctly cinematic techniques. The typically lyrical music of James Newton Howard and the glowing cinematography of Lajos Koltai (responsible, but Oscar-nominated, for one of recent world cinemaís most contemptible exercises in nostalgia, MalŤna) are never as involved as the screenwriting or the acting in the filmís trenchant critique. The key sequences of the two Julius Caesar contests are well-edited, but principally, The Emperor's Club is an acting and a writing piece. Kline implies the worst in the preamble scene that sets up the flashback, but his ďold ageĒ mannerisms and hammy doddering with a hotel phone in this scene are the exact opposite of what he exercises elsewhere: an artful restraint, a catalogue of minor frowns and scowls, and a physical embodiment of the collapse of one manís belief in himself. No one else in the movie has to carry nearly the same dramatic weight or psychological load, though Harris Yulin, last seen as a blood-chilling police bureaucrat in Training Day, adds another bristling rogue to his gallery of white-collar head-cases.

Ultimately, whatever its flaws or shortcomings, The Emperor's Club moved me as few movies have this fall. In part, this is precisely due to the modesty of its scale and the brave way it implies one kind of story but sucker-punches us with another. Real cinematic innovation is a peerless treat, and we need more artists and more stories that will push the boundaries of the medium. And yet, exploding a genre from within its conventional parameters is almost as important as establishing new forms entirely. The Emperorís Club, ruthless in its own placid way, finds one of our most conservative and hidebound movie-making traditions and gives it new texture, new relevance, new reality. I doubt it will be a picture that many people will see, and unfortunately, I would even conjecture that it will most likely be skipped by the people who would most admire it and watched by the people it will anger or disappoint. If you canít figure out which of these groups you belong to, then by all means, go find out. Grade: B

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