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Emperor's Club

'Emperor's Club' fails the test

Friday, November 22, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The Emperor's Club" gets so lost in the ivory tower of its ideals that it stumbles at more practical matters, like plotting, boldness of vision, character development -- and this in a movie that revolves around the importance of developing character.



RATING: PG-13 for some sexual content.
STARRING: Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Rob Morrow, Edward Herrmann.
DIRECTOR: Michael Hoffman.


The movie mirrors the self-satisfied smile and affectionate, paternal gaze on the face of William Hundert (Kevin Kline), assistant headmaster and professor of classics at St. Benedict's, a private school for boys. He gushes with enthusiasm for his subject before these young men of privilege who figure to become the nation's future corporate and political leaders.

But this guy has no clue how the modern world works -- and he never learns. The first half of the movie takes place in 1972, but Hundert wallows in the splendor that was Rome and the greatness of ancient Greece. For that matter, the only seeming ferment at St. Benedict's arrives in the person of Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the jaded son of a U.S. senator from West Virginia (Harris Yulin).

Bell has a brain, but all he wants to do is make trouble. It becomes evident he is starving for his father's attention and is trying to attract it by any means necessary. Hundert realizes the pressure on the lad and takes Sedgewick under his wing -- to the point of making the kind of compromise for which Socrates might have made amends by drinking hemlock.

Hundert gets his comeuppances, but gently -- everyone loves the guy, they just know he's been living in a cocoon too long. That allows people to take advantage of him or to deny him what he truly desires but is much too classy to ask for.

For example, there is Elizabeth (Embeth Davidtz), the wife of a colleague who tells Hundert they're leaving St. Benedict's because her husband has gotten a dream job. There is clearly an attraction here, but Hundert would never admit it even to her, even though she obviously feels the same way.

The point is that Hundert is a man of morals and ethics in a world that pays lip service to such concepts. As much as we admire that, as much as we like Hundert (thanks to Kline, an actor whose skill and amiability makes it almost impossible to dislike him), we can't help seeing him as a bit of a chump.

Too much of "Emperor's Club" -- directed by Michael Hoffman from a Neil Tolkin screenplay -- is too subtle. Hundert, young Bell and another student, Martin Blythe (Paul Dano), all labor under the shadow of a distinguished father. The movie makes the point but never connects the dots in a way that might shed more light on the characters. In Hundert's case, the fact is established so offhandedly that it might as well have been a throwaway.

And nothing really changes, even 30 years later, when young Bell and the other students have grown up and Hundert agrees to attend a reunion of sorts that would re-create the key event in the film, a straight-faced version of "Beat the Geeks" in which three students vie for a crown of laurels by answering questions about ancient history.

Here, finally, the movie makes its point. To its credit, the movie mostly avoids the cliches of private-school movies like "Dead Poet's Society." But by film's end, nothing has changed and nobody really has to pay for his sins -- not even the one who falls for "fool me twice." No wonder Rome fell.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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