(PG-13) 3 1/2 stars Sometimes you can take one look at the trailer for a film and know exactly what the whole thing is about. Take, for example, the ads for The Emperor"s Club. You watch the dedicated teacher addressing his fresh-scrubbed young charges at a stately old school as inspirational music swells, then you roll your eyes and say to yourself, "Gee, It"s "The Dangerous Minds of Mr. Chips" Dead Poets Opus, With Love."
Indeed, The Emperor"s Club is a Teacher Movie, but the simple, straightforward production does not slavishly adhere to the norms of the genre. Rather, it uses the formula to make viewers comfortable, only to take a couple of crucial turns that force you to reexamine the central dynamic. Are students in fact balls of clay ready to be molded by a good teacher? Or, by the time we reach school, have the foundations of our personalities hardened too much to allow significant reformation? Further, what does it say about a teacher when he or she sets out to remake a student? Is such a plan inherently noble or is the teacher playing God, presuming that his or her value system is right and that the one imposed by the parents is wrong? Working from a Neil Tolkin screenplay based on the short story, "The Palace Thief," by Ethan Canin, director Michael Hoffman (Soapdish, Restoration and the most recent version of A Midsummer Night"s Dream) has crafted a work that applies a small dose of reality to a misty genre. The result is a mainstream film about ethics that is both inspirational and disturbing. Kevin Kline, working with Hoffman for the third time, plays William Hundert, a sweet, exceedingly proper professor and assistant headmaster at the highly esteemed St. Benedict"s prep school. Hundert, likable in a Bob Newhart sort of way, uses Greek and Roman history to teach life lessons to his students. The story, told in flashback with too many voice-overs, begins in 1972, with the arrival of freshman Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch). Sedgewick, the son of an arrogant West Virginia senator (Harris Yulin), is astonished that such a stuffy atmosphere could exist during the waning days of the "60s counterculture revolution (frankly, so was I, as the film feels like it is taking place in the "40s or "50s). The kid rebels, Hundert responds and so the war of wills begins. SPOILER ALERT: The following reveals some plot points. Proceed at your own risk. Needless to say, Hundert begins to make inroads with Sedgewick, even though he must butt heads with the kid"s father, who assures him loudly that his efforts are both inappropriate and destined to fail. Key in the proceedings is a contest Hundert stages each year where the student that correctly answers the most questions about Roman history receives the crown of Mr. Julius Caesar, an award highly coveted by the boys. Hundert wants Sedgewick in the contest - very, very much. Sedgewick wants to win the contest - very, very much. And along the way, the time-honored ethics being taught in class get discarded. The story is told within a framing device, beginning in 1997 with a reunion dinner reuniting the class and the now-retired professor. A restaging of the Caesar contest is proposed, "just for fun," allowing for more reflection on the choices made in "72. END SPOILER ALERT. While the template is well known, the story manages to remain gripping, thanks to the throwing of a money wrench into the clichÈs of the Teacher Movie. Hoffman"s low-key direction (he based the tone of the film on the Hundert character) is effective, aided by an evocative score by James Newton-Howard and wonderfully modulated acting by the cast. Emile Hirsch makes a fine Sedgewick, investing his character with charisma and just the right amounts of cockiness and insecurity. And, as always, Kevin Kline finds the perfect notes for his role. Hundert, in his hands, becomes a beguiling, but equally frustrating character. This focused man, who seems so apart from the times, is admirable, of course, for his dedication to his students. At the same time, you want to grab him by the shoulders and shout, "Don"t you see that your absolute assurance in the rightness of your actions is just as arrogant as the stance held by Sedgewick"s father? Won"t you even consider the possibility that you may be making a mistake?" A good teacher is something to celebrate and The Emperor"s Club does so nicely. But by going that extra step and showing the flaws of the man along with his virtues, it sends us out of the theater with some ideas to roll around. Professor Hundert, I think, would be pleased.