There are a handful of films that almost everyone, or at least a large number of people, in my generation like, appreciate, love or even worship. Two amongst them--bear with me, I might seem off my rocker for a moment here--are The Dead Poets Society and American History X. If you've seen this film and those, you're probably wondering what in the hell I'm talking about, bringing American History X into this. I understand. It is a little odd, I know. But the reasoning is this. In these films, I felt the absence of something. The sentiments were good and I agreed with them, the performances and writing were good--but something was missing. This film, somewhat frustratingly, joins those ranks. It's tiresome to compare the two, as it's easily noted that The Emperor's Club is about the teacher, William Hundert (Kevin Kline) and not the students as The Dead Poets Society is. Still, they all suffer from a lack of connection. In all cases the writers and actors can make each scene work in and of itself, but the whole thing never seems to come together correctly--things are resolved too simply, things come together without explanation, threads are left dangling and unfinished despite constant hints that they should be tied off. Glossing over is the best way to explain this problem--and unfortunately many a time it has been the central concept that is glossed over. The way Edward Norton's character finds a change in philosophy, the way Keating inspires his students--it feels like the writers didn't know how to convince us of those things, and so they just sort of tried to imply it instead, wholly unsuccessfully.
Anyway, I was fairly well handed this film by my father, which I later found out was less surprising when someone pointed out to me that it was similar to films like Stand and Deliver or Mr. Holland's Opus, but centered on a teacher of the Classics--which is one of my father's primary fields of interest, leading to a definite "Aha!" moment. William Hundert is a professor at St. Benedict's Preparatory School, teaching the Greco-Roman portion of the history of Western civilization to the studious young captains of industry to be. Kline is excellent as a teacher who is passionate about his field, arguing eloquently for his belief that this particular portion of history is essential to the education of all, not condescending to his students though obviously a proponent of rote memorization. His students are by and large enthusiastic--Louis Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg) bears both a physical and a character resemblance to the kind of role Michael Cera is coming to be known for, a sort of happy, well-meaning fool who puts his foot in his own mouth without thinking, despite being fairly intelligent beside this. Deepak Mehta (why does that name sound so familiar?--Rishi Mehta) is the most studious of all, reading outside the necessary work for the class and taking it all very seriously. Young Martin Blythe (Paul Dano) is trying to live up to his father's example, he being a former "Mr. Julius Caesar"--the school's honorary title for winner of a contest of Classic knowledge. Into their life wanders Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), son of a senator (Harris Yulin--who I can't help but always think of screaming, "It's the Scolari brothers!" whenever I see him, but always good at playing reprehensible government officials) who is upset emotionally by his father's distance from him, who resorts to acting out and disrupting Hundert's education of the other students in an attempt to find a life for himself, caring little for what effect he has on the others, but in some way earning our acceptance as he tries to find some joy in life, when we can clearly see that this is not where he wants to be, so his lack of interest is almost forgiveable.
A visit to Bell's father by Hundert leaves Bell sullen and quiet, Hundert taking the opportunity to try and build some good into Bell's nature and to take him away from the egocentric and purely selfish approach of his father who cares little for the value of history. Now we see some events that feel familiar--there's the Mr. Julius Caesar contest, and we see Bell make a choice that leaves us sighing, we see Martin Blythe upset at his exclusion--I feared this would lead to melodramatic suicidal scenes, attempted or otherwise. Luckily, it did not. This is where, though, this film takes an interesting turn, one that piqued my curiosity as to how things would run. The reason for Blythe's exclusion is unusual and says something totally unexpected about Hundert, and the events that stem from this decision turn out somewhat contrasting to what we are used to seeing at this point in films criticized as schmaltzy. It ends up in some ways the antithesis of the streak of Capra I've been watching. Cynical corruption does not lose out, it is rewarded just as it often, unfortunately, is in reality. Yet, behind it, the meaning of it all is clear. People are all flawed, and while we can take chances, there are lines not to cross--but those crossed lines are ones we should not be unwilling to forgive. The influence of someone who feels passionate about their subject and encourages people to take interest in it and better themselves, using the ideas of the philosophers his passion has taken him in close contact with (Heraclitus, Socrates, even the emperors of Rome) is not negated by error, nor by failing one student.
What is underdeveloped here? In truth, less than I thought. In the end, it wrapped up more of those threads than the other two films I've mentioned. It seems, at first, that Blythe is going to be left sitting forlorn by a tree after losing out in the contest, but we see what comes of this finally. We see what comes of both Hundert and Bell's choices, we see that neither is instantly forgiven or correct or proven right or wrong in their actions, but see both the positive and negative ramifications of each, deserved and undeserved. However, the romance between Hundert and Elizabeth (Embeth Davidtz) is never addressed fully and feels tacked--no, not tacked on, but like it was a real thread, but one we didn't need to see. It feels real, it feels right, for these two characters, but it feels irrelevant, too. The thread of Headmaster Woodbridge (good ol' Edward Herrmann, uptight as usual, but in one of his less sympathetic roles) and his car, his leadership, his weakness--these aren't addressed. We simply flash forward to his inevitable death. We flash forward a lot at one point, losing 25 years that it feels like the writers didn't know how to cover.
On a final note? I was amused to note some of the Loeb classical library being placed into Hundert's suitcase at the beginning of the film, those little green and red volumes a sight common to the great majority of my life in some form or other.