At St. Benedict’s Academy for Boys, instructor William Hundert (Kevin Kline) fills the minds of his students with Socrates and Aristotle, “men whose accomplishments surpassed their own lifetimes.” His life is dedicated to molding and training the influential men of the future, a position supporting his belief that “A man’s character is his fate.” It looks like another picture-perfect year at St. Benedict’s, until Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) transfers into Hundert’s classics class. Bringing his “new-school bravado” with him, Bell causes a rebellious ripple that affects all the boys’ attitudes and tests his teacher’s abilities.
Directed by Michael Hoffman (William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Soapdish), The Emperor’s Club is a nerd’s version of Dead Poets Society, mimicking the “new kid at an uptight boys’ school-caring teacher” formula, but lacking the wonder, revelation and charisma of the latter.
Kline’s character, meant to be endearing, is about as interesting as a slide rule, whose unaggressive inclinations doom his existence to come up short in love and revel in his yearly stint MCing an in-house “Jeopardy meets Julius Caesar” rote knowledge contest. Hundert is so unnaturally straight-edged that after Sedgewick finds out Hundert’s not married, young Mr. Bell seems to second our sentiments when he asks, “Is that why you like to put us all in togas?” But not even Sedgewick — our hero-antihero, the only student who dares to think outside of the toga — can shake this film alive with his snotty adolescent opposition, and ends up getting caught up in the story’s whirlpool of perpetually stagnant mindsets.
In Hundert’s own favorite all-knowing words (which are rarely his own), great conquests without contributions are forgotten, so what wisdom is gained here? When a character’s impotency is forgiven, it gives him the go-ahead to continue his spineless path — or a man’s wishy-washy character is the fate of his Dead Poets Society-wannabe movie?
Meant to be a rah-rah for teaching, and slinging its contrived arrow into our mushy nostalgic hearts, The Emperor’s Club only gets as far as holding our hands down a suspicious sentimental path. It’s mediocre to the point of disturbing, leaving us starving for engaging dialogue and freethinking spontaneous substance.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].