Let’s be honest for a moment. In The Emperor’s Club, a film about a teacher who learns that life is not measured by one failure, but the amount of successes one has along the way, Kevin Kline is very good.
He’s good, the writing provides solid characters with a decent story arc, and the direction allows the audience to sit back and see a tale set in the 1960s unfold. From a technical and acting standpoint, the film is a success.
But let’s continue to be honest here. The Emperor’s Club brings nothing new to the table. And the film, set in a prestigious prep school, is as stale as the halls in which its plot takes place. And, in congruence, Kline comes across as stodgy and unappealing as one would expect from a hard-line prep school teacher who’s been at it for most of his adult life.
His problem arrives in the form of a rebellious brat, born to a pushy politician and lacking in the manners one expects from a proper prep school boy. All the other kids love him, but Kline’s prof sees the troubled youth as a challenge.
As the year goes by, young Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) begins to warm to Mr. William Hundert (Kline) and starts caring about all that Classics stuff his teacher’s been spouting about emperors and things. Sedgewick also makes friends with his classmates, and makes nice with the skinny dipping girls from across the lake. But eventually, he falters and gets caught cheating during a quiz-bowl-type event. And Mr. Hundert takes it personally. On top of his personal failure, Mr. Hundert keeps getting passed up for a promotion at the school.
Unlike Sedgewick, let’s keep this honesty thing going. The story’s crux is not new. Even the film’s title steals the idea behind Dead Poets Society’s. But while The Emperor’s Club focuses more on the teacher’s plight than that of one of the students, it is no different than To Sir With Love.
Sure, Kline is keeping good company with Robin Williams and Sydney Poitier — that’s a trio of Oscar winners right there, all playing teachers — and he will almost certainly get noticed by critics’ circles for end-of-year awards. But his talents are wasted here.
Of course, he can recite Shakespeare with the best of them. But he already did that with In and Out.
Kline was great as a failed soap opera actor doing Willy Loman for dinner theater in Soapdish. Likewise as the overbearing con artist for which he won the Oscar in A Fish Called Wanda. Heck, he would even be better off doing a Wild Wild West again — a film he was easily the best part of, and one where a sequel couldn’t be any worse.
But here he is, doing The Ice Storm a few years ago and Life as a House last year — deep, dark character dramas that get him stuck in roles that don’t allow for wiggle room to invite the audience into the core of the character.
Kline is a great actor, and people who like moving films such as The Emperor’s Club will enjoy him here.
But just as the rebellious boy doesn’t learn how to correct his mistake, Kline seems content with being stale, stodgy and simple.
Unlike a teacher’s life, an actor’s career is sometimes remembered for his or her failures, rather than the successes. And Kline’s had too many to be remembered as a once-stimulating actor who started making boring films.
Contact Will Albritton at firstname.lastname@example.org
‘The Emperor’s Club’ is rated PG-13 and opens Friday.