Release Date: November 22, 2002
Actors: Kevin Kline, Roger Rees, Rob Morrow, Steven Culp, Joel Gretsch, Patrick Dempsey, Rahul Khanna, Embeth Davidtz, Emile Hirsch, George F. Miller, Paul Franklin Dano, Jesse Eisenberg, Rishi Mehta, Gabriel Millman
Director: Michael Hoffman
Special Notes: Director Michael Hoffman likes to recast his actors in his other films; he directed Kline in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Soapdish.
Plot: William Hundert (Kline) is a dedicated assistant headmaster at St. Benedicts who teaches his pupils lessons about life from his Greek and Roman classics. Hundert believes it his duty to mold and shape the young men he teaches until a student joins his class that challenges his methods. Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) is the rebellious son of a well-known Senator who causes problems in his classes, introduces his fellow students to soft porn magazines, commandeers secret outings to a nearby girl's school and ultimately causes Hundert to re-evaluate his teaching methods. Bell challenges Hundert in a way no other student ever has and Hundert equally challenges Bell by getting him to enter a contest that tests the abilities and brains of the few who make the best grades. When Hundert selects Bell to be in the famous "Emperor's Club" (a competition between students who've earned the highest grades), he's surprised by an event that jostles his faith in the school and forever changes Hundert's view of his world and perhaps more importantly, his own choices and character. Twenty years later when Bell and his classmates are grown and have careers and families of their own, Hundert is called to judge a "rematch" of the "Emperor's Club". Once again Hundert is confronted with the past and haunted by a decision he made, but he is also rewarded with getting a firsthand look at how his investment in each of the young men he "molded", paid off in the grown men they became.
Good: Bravo for a movie that reminds all of us that living our lives with purpose and examining our moral and ethical behavior in the choices we make, ultimately affects others around us. Do ethics, character and integrity really matter in today's fast-paced, self-absorbed world and is it really possible to live an "ethical" life? The answers to these questions aren't always completely clear and this thought-provoking, well written story clearly illustrates that point. Director Michael Hoffman (One Fine Day) delivers a thought-provoking look at how a teacher changed the lives of his students. On a deeper level this story deals with the issue of those who try and "beat the system" by taking the easy road to success, with little regard for who they hurt or step on in that journey. But at what price and at what cost does that behavior affect others? Rarely do we see a realistic story dealing with ethics between a teacher and his pupils. The Emperor's Club is sort of a cross between Dead Poets Society and Goodbye Mr. Chips, only much better because the story isn't depressing and there are no deaths, suicides or musical numbers. Instead, we get a slice-of-life dealing with real characters and believable situations that reflect what most of us face at some point or time in our teen and adult lives. I enjoyed the fact that the story spanned 20 years, giving us a familiarity with the incredible ensemble of teenage boys and then seeing how their characters turned out as grown men. It lets the audience come full circle in appreciation for what Hundert instilled in them. This is a story that isn't wrapped up in a neat package. There are moral and ethical lines that are challenged and crossed for the sake of money, fame and status. There's forgiveness, mercy and grace, given and shown between characters, which serves as a reminder that all of us are capable of failing those who believe in us the most. Hirsch gives an amazing performance that captures the moral and ethical conflicts many young men (and women) are experiencing today. His character eerily reminds us that a father's neglect and insensitive expectations can damage a boy in his formative years and how damaging those results can be when that boy becomes a man who carries on the same behavior. Toward the end of the movie there's a scene in a bathroom between Hundert, Bell and his son that sums up what this movie is all about in just a few words and a simple look--it is profound! I have to admit that I'm a fan of Kevin Kline and even more so after this role. His portrayal of a disciplined teacher who gives his heart to his students, his soul to his job and his life to teaching by setting aside his own personal life to "mold and shape" the destiny of others is a profound tribute to the many wonderful teachers who do just that every day. In one scene Kline's character asks, "How will history remember you?" In Kline's case, I hope it's for this wonderful movie and his brilliant performance.
Bad: There are a few scenes that revolve around the boys rebelling and doing "boys-will-be-boys" type pranks: sneaking over to an all-girl's school then challenging the girls to skinny-dipping (the group gets caught by nuns as they begin taking off their clothes but nothing is shown), Bell introducing his innocent classmates to porn magazines and a couple of scenes that involve Bell disrupting Hundert's class and cheating. I don't classify this as a "family film" because the PG-13 content is too mature for children and better for mature adolescents to pre-teens and adults.
Bottom Line: The Emperor's Club is brilliant! Kline gives a masterful performance that is truly Oscar-worthy in one of the best films this year! Parents, this is a story that will resonate with your pre-teens, your teenagers and even your young twenty-somethings (as well as with you). So make this an opportunity to take your adolescent or teenager to see this movie and discuss it with them afterwards. Ask what he or she would do if faced with the same dilemmas and find out if they know a fellow classmate that behaves like Bell. There are also some parent/child and teacher/student scenes that could lead to some interesting discussions. So make it a priority to see this wonderful movie and support Hollywood when it delivers excellent entertainment!