The Emperor's Club (PG-13)
It's difficult to understand why a studio optioned Ethan Canin's quiet novella The Palace Thief as a major motion picture, except for the long legacy of boarding school dramas that have been career boosters for screen actors -- think Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Peter O'Toole in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. The genre generally offers idyllic settings, well-spoken protagonists, the scurry of adolescent energy and a moving life lesson or two. The Emperor's Club is no exception.
Kevin Kline is William Hundert, a teacher of the classics at St. Benedictus School for Boys, a swank prep school for the children of America's elite en route to their ultimate and assured takeover of industry, academia and government establishment when they grow up. These are boys of privilege; and with privilege, warns Mr. Hundert, comes responsibility. Using ancient Romans and Greeks as examples, Hundert pounds lessons of character, honesty and morality into the heads of his charges.
Enter Sedgewick Bell, the proverbial troubled boy, played with sexy disdain and a swatch of thick, unruly hair by Emile Hirsch. Sedgewick is a kidder and a troublemaker who quickly leads his straight-laced classmates astray. But Mr. Hundert sees the hurt, pressured son of a dogged U.S. senator when he looks at Sedgewick, and resolves to save him through academic rigor. When Sedgewick places among the four finalists in the Mr. Julius Caesar contest, an ancient history quiz and St. Benedictus rite of passage, Mr. Hundert fixes a grade that elevates him to the top three in hopes that a victory will change Sedgewick forever.
But Sedgewick isn't an easy fix. He cheats when the pressure's on, and when Mr. Hundert realizes what's happening, he quickly figures out a graceful way to make Sedgewick lose.
Fast-forward 25 years. Sedgewick beckons Mr. Hundert to a weekend at an exclusive Long Island resort. He has promised a large endowment to St. Benedictus if Mr. Hundert will oversee a rematch of the Mr. Julius Caesar contest. What ensues is one of those aforementioned life lessons: A leopard can't change its spots. And another: Mistakes are merely obstacles on the road to honor. And another: Trust your instincts.
The Emperor's Club is so packed with these well-meaning life lessons that one begins to wonder when "Pomp and Circumstance" will start playing. Actually a version of it does play, incessantly, in a musical score so pompous and earnest that we are tempted to stand at attention every 15 minutes or so.
This isn't a bad film, just one so mechanically made that there is not a single surprise in its entire two-hour duration. A couple of characters, including the chaste love interest of Mr. Hundert, are inexplicably thrown into the plot but are never developed beyond their wooden appearances and their apparent worship of Mr. H.
Kevin Kline is all sanctimony and gravitas intoning the glories of the Roman Empire, and his physical perkiness -- high, tight buns, perfect posture, bouncy step, prissy hand gestures -- are too much for a teacher who, ostensibly, has no life outside the classroom. I wished for a real geek, an Anthony Hopkins or perhaps a Ralph Fiennes, who could portray that sparcity of character, reliant on the curious eyes of a room full of horny boys to know that he exists.
The moral lessons of The Emperor's Club are worthwhile but sodden in the telling.