I like “Goodbye Mr. Chips” as much as anybody–James Hilton’s novel, the 1939 Robert Donat filmization, even Leslie Bricusse’s 1969 musical version with Peter O’Toole and directed by Herbert Ross. But one has to draw the line at cut-rate imitations like “The Emperor’s Club.” The screenplay Neil Tolkin has fashioned from a story by Ethan Canin is little more than a weirdly updated version of the classic (several scenes are directly lifted from it, like one in which a beloved teacher is passed over for the job of headmaster), though it tries to give a dose of modern cynicism to what’s basically a preachily self-congratulatory paean to the nobility of teaching. The result is both ploddingly earnest and curiously phony. And it’s made even worse by an arch, prissy lead performance from Kevin Kline and turgid, hamfisted direction by Michael Hoffman. This “Club” is like a class on an all too familiar subject taught by a thoroughly mediocre instructor; it definitely earns a failing grade.
The central character in the story, most of which is set in 1972, is William Hundert (Kline), a dedicated instructor in classical studies at St. Benedict’s, a posh private East Coast prep school. Hundert aims to instill in his charges, all scions of the well-to-do, not only a knowledge of ancient history but reverence for the lessons in statesmanship and virtue to be derived from the study of Cicero and Caesar. In short, his goal is to mold the youngsters’ minds, making them realize their obligations as leaders of society. But his efforts are challenged by a new student, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the rebellious, devil-may-care son of a powerful US senator (Harris Yulin). Bell not only treats Hundert’s ideals with boyish contempt, but is charismatic enough to have a bad influence on the teacher’s more docile, if not idolatrous, pupils Blythe (Paul Dano), Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg) and Mehta (Rishi Mehta). The pedagogue feels driven to win Bell over, and appears to have succeeded by enticing him into an annual competition to determine which of the students will be designated Mr. Julius Caesar on the basis of his mastery of the course material. Hundert’s hopes for Bell even lead him to promote the boy’s candidacy over that of the scrupulous, bookish Blythe. But events will show that flaws of character are not so easily overcome; and even years later, when Hundert is persuaded to repeat the competition in return for a pledge of a large donation to St. Benedict’s, it appears that personal failings evident in youth continue into middle age. The reunion, however, does provide Hundert with the opportunity to make up, in part, for his past mistakes.
If all this makes “The Emperor’s Club” sound clumsily didactic, that’s because it is. But the picture is also painfully synthetic on all levels. We’re supposed to believe, for instance, that the action is taking place in the early seventies, but the placidity of the place and docility of the students suggest an ambiance more reflective of the Eisenhower era. There’s not the slightest hint of the upheaval the United States in undergoing in the Vietnam War, for instance, or of the sexual revolution of the sixties; this ivory tower seems to be an impregnable fortress against any intrusion from the outside world. Even “Chips” recognized the reality of war–indeed, made it an integral part of its story. As if it weren’t bad enough that the school is portrayed as existing in a sort of time warp, the idea of The Great Teacher presented here is perverse. In Kline’s studied, stiff performance, Hundert comes across as an intellectual martinet, absurdly smug and self-righteous. Even worse, he teaches history as little more than a recitation of discrete facts, and mastery of the discipline in terms of a mere ability to regurgitate data without any indication that thought about the material is expected. Thus the “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest–and can one seriously imagine adolescent boys giving their all to a show in which they wear togas in order to be rewarded with a laurel wreath?–is staged as though it were an episode of the “Jeopardy” College edition; when a student is asked something like “The Battle of Trasimene occurred in what year?” you almost expect the necessary answer to be “What was 217 BC?” The whole approach trivializes education in general and the study of history in particular.
Kline’s turn isn’t appreciably bettered by his co-stars. Hirsh is a promising young actor, but his histrionics pale beside his much more subtle performance in “The Secret Lives of Altar Boys.” Similarly, Dano was far more impressive in “L.I.E.,” and Eisenberg in the current “Roger Dodger.” Among the adults, Edward Herrmann and Yulin are mere caricatures as St. Benedict’s all-too-prudent headmaster and Bell’s gruff father, respectively; Rob Morrow is suitably shallow as a colleague of Hundert’s. There’s also the hint of a romance in the person of another colleague’s wife (Embeth Davidtz) who’s attracted to Hundert, but this portion of the plot is handled so obliquely that it might have been put in parentheses.
On the positive side, “The Emperor’s Club” is slickly made: the locations, both interior and exterior, are quite lovely, and they’re nicely caught by cinematographer Lajos Koltai; James Newton Howard has contributed a soupy score that emphasizes the schmaltzy quality of the proceedings. But the surface gloss can’t disguise the emptiness of what lies within. Hoffman’s stately, self-important movie should be retitled “Good Riddance, Mr. Drip.”