*½/**** Image B- Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Embeth Davidtz, Rob Morrow
screenplay by Neil Tolkin, based on the short story "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin
directed by Michael Hoffman
by Walter Chaw Saccharine, derivative, and overlong, Michael Hoffman's often-painful The Emperor's Club is remarkable only for the extremes to which it goes to avoid the clichéd ending--and the sad karmic (and ironic, given the film's carpe diem, hakuna matata catchphrase) completeness with which it fails to do so. Set in the Sixties at an exclusive all-boys prep school, The Emperor's Club is immediately recognizable as another iteration of Dead Poets Society, even more so when one realizes that the film features the same quartet of student types (the troubled one, the trickster, the bookish one, the gregarious one--also the same breakdown you'll find in Stand By Me, come to think of it) and the same crinkly-eyed inspirational professor who finds a lesson for young lives in the heartening words of dead versifiers. That The Emperor's Club spends its second half flashed-forward twenty-five years as said crinkly-eyed scholar discovers that his truest legacy is the success of his students reduces it to a variation of the miserable Mr. Holland's Opus.
The picture is thus a beaten retread of two different movies that haven't aged well and weren't that hot to begin with. Mr. Hundert (Kevin Kline) is the soft-spoken professor of ancient western civilization at hoity-toity St. Benedict's prep school fond of making his kids memorize the Roman emperors chronologically, engage in an annual trivia contest to crown "Mr. Caesar," and solemnly intone Caesar's fatalistic declaration of alea jacta est--"the die is cast"--whether appropriate or not.
As inspirational sayings go, it's not so hot. The Emperor's Club, as inspirational pictures go, is equally tepid. It's beside the point, really, to explore the details of the plot--every beat of the schoolboy/inspirational teacher narrative mapped out by the aforementioned examples of the genre is strictly adhered to here. Sufficed to say that the twist of the film is something about cheating and an evil confession overheard by a little boy in a bathroom stall. Consider yourself fairly warned.
A film without surprise geared toward maximum comfort and familiarity, The Emperor's Club is bound to garner some fans for its easy solutions and broad topics (like any other populist soaper, I guess) but, like Hoffman's own version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (which saw Kline as its highlight), it's possessed of a peculiar rootless malaise. Its message one of unavoidable predestination mixed with the importance of being a good person through all of life's stunning disappointments (and one's own personal shortcomings as a human being), I'm inclined to give the film credit for not creating much false hope for the hopeless; save for the fact that it milks Mr. Hundert's humiliation for maximum uplift. There's an interesting message about a life lived well that's buried deep in The Emperor's Club, deep enough that it's fair to wonder if credit for any substantive appreciation is due the efforts of the filmmakers, or our lingering affection for Kevin Kline. Originally published: November 22, 2002.
by Bill Chambers The Emperor's Club arrives on DVD from Universal in a mixed-bag presentation. Though the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film (full-frame version sold separately) starts out looking scuffed, the speckles clear up after the opening credits--but then edge-enhancement intrudes, and there's a bizarre lapse in quality during chapter 6, when intermittent shots lose so much definition as to suggest second-generation VHS. Shadow detail is passable and colours are vibrant throughout, especially green. The 5.1 mix--in nearly identical Dolby Digital and DTS configurations--is pleasant but dialogue-driven; James Newton Howard's score is thick with bass. Kicking off the extras is a full-length yakker by director Michael Hoffman in which he says this is the least pre-planned movie of his career (maybe he ought to think about going back to the other way), heaps praise on his cast, and gets steadily wrapped-up in the film on-screen to the point where he's delivering play-by-play like a breathless sportscaster.
I preferred Hoffman's commentary over the twenty-odd minutes of otherwise-uninteresting deleted and/or extended scenes (thirteen in total), for his discussion of process becomes more astute, even if he doesn't say anything you haven't heard from a dozen filmmakers before--e.g. that editing a film is akin to honing a chunk of marble into a sculpture. The included 22-minute making-of ("The Emperor's Club: Making the Cut") segues from an optimistic quote ("The motion picture everyone is talking about") to a pretentious and clip-heavy discussion of The Emperor's Club's themes courtesy of Ethics professors and poli-sci instructors; on the one hand, it's a refreshing break from the production non-anecdotes that typically pad these things out, but on the other, the film is too simplistically drawn to withstand the intellectual weight of the discussion. A preview for The Pianist heralds the movie proper; trailers for The Emperor's Club and Seabiscuit, cast/filmmaker biographies/filmographies, Universal recommendations, and DVD-ROM weblinks round out the platter. Originally published: May 5, 2003.