When I first saw previews for The Emperor's Club, I thought that its creators were ripping off The Dead Poets Society(1989). However, I expected to like the movie. I thought that it was going to be one of those warm, fuzzy films that are so chocked full of inspiration that I leave the theater wanting to go out and change the world. On top of that, my friends and I were looking forward to the prospect of watching teenage guys in uniform. An hour and 49 minutes later I exited the theater feeling slightly dejected. The most thought-provoking question The Emperor's Club raised was why don't I ever like the same movies as my friends?
The Emperor's Club tells the story of William Hundert (Kevin Kline, Life as a House), a history professor at St. Benedict's School for Boys, and his efforts to teach his students about great men of the past and how to be the great men of the future. This simple plot thickens when Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch / Joel Gretsch) comes to St. Benedict's. Hundert and Bell clash from day one. However, Hundert sees great potential in the trouble-making Bell and dedicates special effort to turning the boy around.
To speak in teacher lingo, The Emperor's Club has great potential that it does not live up to. It could have been a superb movie, but in what I assume was an attempt to stand out amongst a well-loved genre of films, the writers did themselves wrong. The first half of the film is okay, until the hero of the story, Mr. Hundert, becomes part of the conflict. He becomes one of the people being educated, rather than being the one educating. The film becomes a downer. Who wants to see the all-knowing teacher flub up? Not me.
The acting is good, however it is not by any means spectacular as was suggested in the previews. Kline is good, but then again he always is. I wanted to see a great actor play a really great and challenging part. This was not the case. Hirsch is not that great either. Frankly, the parts in this film were so simple that my Junior High Drama Class probably could have portrayed these characters just as well. I feel like I should mention that Rishi Mehta who plays the character Deepak Mehta (no joke, he really has the same last name as his character) was great. This was his debut role and he was easily my favorite part of the whole film.
So, even though The Emperor's Club has a few great quotable lines ("How will history remember you?") it doesn't meet the criteria to pass this film-lover's test. Among the numerous prep-school movies I've encountered in my lifetime, this film, with its downer plot and easy acting, ranks down around that horrid adaptation of A Separate Peace I had to watch in English this year. Although it desperately tries, The Emperor's Club just does not make the grade.