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The Emperor's Club (November 19/02)

Though the promotional materials for The Emperor's Club seemed to indicate it'd be a feel-good flick about a caring teacher (along the same lines as Mr. Holland's Opus), the film instead focuses on a caring teacher who's continuing efforts to reform a troubled student aren't exactly rewarded.

Kevin Kline stars as Mr. Hundert, a history teacher at an upscale school for boys who prides himself on making a difference in the lives of his students. Though we first meet up with him in the present, the film quickly shifts to the past where Mr. Hundert is in the process of starting a new school year. Among his students are the usual gang we've come to expect from films of this sort, including the nervous goofball (Jesse Eisenberg) and the super-smart foreigner (Rishi Mehta), but a late arrival provides Mr. Hundert with the greatest challenge of his career. Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) is the petulant son of a Senator, and his rebel-without-a-clue ways win him the admiration of his classmates, and Mr. Hundert is initially annoyed with his acting-out. But he soon becomes convinced that Sedgewick is a bright kid trapped inside an obnoxious one, and makes him a personal cause.

As The Emperor's Club progresses, it becomes far less predictable than it originally seemed. The film clearly wants to avoid the feel-good trappings that have become par-for-the-course with movies like this, going so far as to confound expectations at key points along the way. For a long while, it seems as though the film is going to be another Dead Poets Society - with Mr. Hundert bonding with the kids by playing baseball with them and spouting aphorisms that sure sound good but make little sense. Those early sequences turn out to be the film's most enjoyable, with remarkably engrossing classroom scenes and dorm-room hijinks, due in part to Kline's performance. Though he admirably stretched himself with last year's Life as a House, The Emperor's Club allows Kline to play the sort of cocksure character he specializes in. Mr. Hundert is the kind of teacher all of us wish we would've had at some point in our past. There's no questioning the fact that he genuinely cares for his students, and indeed, he routinely puts them above his personal life (his only relationship outside the classroom is with a woman who's already married, played by Embeth Davidtz).

But the film becomes something different around the halfway mark, when Mr. Hundert goes out on a limb for young Sedgewick. Certain that all he requires is an ego boost, Mr. Hundert fixes it so that Sedgewick narrowly edges out another student for a place in a pivotal knowledge contest. And, as Mr. Hundert soon finds out, Sedgewick has no intentions of winning the contest fairly - instead, he cheats (though he's unable to hide that fact from Mr Hundert), leading the teacher to the conclusion that he's failed Sedgewick. And once the film shifts to the present, and Mr. Hundert is invited to stage a rematch of the contest with the same participants (Sedgewick is now a successful businessman with an eye towards politics), Mr. Hundert hopes that Sedgewick has changed his cheating ways. The lesson that Mr. Hundert learns from this is a discouraging one: some students just can't be saved. It's certainly a pessimistic view which is all-the-more surprising given how conventional the first half of the film is.

The Emperor's Club will certainly please those who thought Mr. Holland's Opus was too maudlin, though the film does end on a somewhat upbeat note. Still, Kline's lead performance and his chemistry with the various kids that make up his class make the film worth a look - even if the second half isn't nearly as effective as the first.

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