It’s Shameless Oscar Bid Time at the movies, and Kevin Kline, having lost the equally shameless bid with last year’s Life As a House, is back again with The Emperor’s Club. This time it might just pan out for him. Whether or not he deserves it is another matter. One thing is certain: This movie does not.
The Emporer’s Club is big, glossy and high-minded, decked out with solid production design and drenched in a James Newton Howard score so sugary-sweet that the American Dental Association needs to speak out against it for promoting tooth decay. And all for what? To bring us a tired, elitist, class-conscious drama that’s kind of Goodbye, Mr. Chips by way of Topaze. However, it lacks the genuine emotional impact of the first and has none of the sophisticated satire of the latter, even though the Mr. Julius Caesar contest that serves as the cornerstone of the plot plays suspiciously like a defanged version of John Barrymore quizzing his students at the climax of Topaze.
The story presents Kline as an idealistic teacher whose ideals are challenged and, in fact, undermined with the arrival of Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), the charismatic spoiled son of an apparently corrupt senator. Kline tries to reach the boy and change him, but his efforts in this area are decidedly mixed, and perhaps it can be said that the boy changes him more than he changes the boy. The movie’s receiving kudos because it presents Kline’s character as flawed; but, good Lord, it’s weak tea. In the main, the film trots out every noble-teacher cliche known to man, lovingly presenting it all as if it were an original idea.
The screenplay itself is a structural nightmare — I have yet to figure out why the film bothered to give Kline a romantic interest. Were they afraid we might otherwise think he was gay? Maybe. In any case, the film introduces Embeth Davidtz’s character early on, then forgets her for a few reels, only to have her pop back in so she can disappear again for a few more reels before coming back a second time to marry Kline and then disappear altogether for the climax! Where did she go? (At least Goodbye, Mr. Chips had the decency to kill off the romantic interest.) Why was she ever there in the first place? And what happened between the Big Payoff scene and the tag scene?
At the movie’s dramatic highpoint, Kline’s character is retired. The next thing we know, he’s back in the classroom. What happened? Who knows? My guess is that the filmmakers wimped out on the real ending and decided that a good-’n'-gooey, uplifting tug at the heartstrings was just what was needed. It wasn’t. The movie’s one actual surprise is that Kline is never given the Big Speech you usually find in the Shameless Oscar Bid genre. (If he doesn’t get an Oscar, you can bet this won’t start a trend.) So how is Kline’s performance? It’s not bad, even if it feels all too often like he’s trying to channel Robin Williams through a faulty spirit medium. It’s certainly very earnest — so earnest, in fact, that it runs the risk of inducing narcolepsy in some viewers.
As a kind of old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, I suppose The Emperor’s Club has its place. People who adored I Am Sam and John Q but found Life As a House a little too daring will want to see it. Personally, I found it well-made in its fashion, but finally more calculated, tedious and irritating than anything else.