The formulaic The Emperor’s Club is essentially a weak imitation of Dead Poet’s Society without a heart and without even a good “standing on the desk” tear-jerking ode to good teaching scene. Instead of carpe diem (“seize the day”) we hear random cries of alea jacta est ("the die is cast"). No Henry David Thoreau or “uncle” Walt Whitman here; instead we are riddled with ball breaking trivia contests about dead Roman Emperors, and we’re expected to believe that this helps mold squeaky clean college prep boys into influential leaders of the future.
Although based on Ethan Canin's short story “The Palace Thief,” Neil Tolkin's screenplay reads so much like a mass produced lesson plan, that director Michael Hoffman's film has all the markings of a studio project on it; so I will refer to this as Universal's film from this point on.
As a former teacher, I should have been a prime audience for this. Hell, I even used to play Dead Poet's Society as an introduction to my English class, hoping that it would inspire some unknown student into finding his own “voice” and perhaps being an artistic rebel. Taking the same basic population of ambitious studious teens and a charismatic leader with father issues, The Emperor's Club takes a different philosophical bent—intent not on developing independence but on learning the old classics, as if this will grant them wisdom and good character. The idea that anyone would give a rat's ass about their traditional Mr. Julius Caesar contest is ludicrous, and even more unbelievable is the scenario that a whole class taught by the stodgy William Hundert (Kevin Kline) would schedule a 25 year reunion as if this was an important event in their lives.
Appropriately cast as the bookish teacher of western civilization, Kline holds great acting credentials and has the background to bring the pretentious professor to life after many years of Shakespearean theater work. Too bad the script doesn't take advantage of Kline's enormous range, and represses his character so much. The supposedly inspirational teacher begins every year the same way by choosing one student to read the wooden plaque above the door citing a significant ancient leader that never made the history books and peppering his young charges with Roman trivia.
Out of class lessons consist of trite recitation of rules. “Stay on the path” Hundert charges young absent minded Louis Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg charmingly reprising the same basic role he plays in Roger Dodger), and his standard advice to all his charges is to study and work hard and read the old classics that mean so much to him. Hundert’s routine has been working pleasantly enough until the day his Rubicon is crossed by Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), bright and rebellious son of a U.S. Senator. Bell immediately questions the value of Hundert's classical world and significantly is assigned Brutus’ part to read. Like the dark side of Dead Poet's Society's Neil Perry, Bell leads his classmates into the forbidden territory of Oui magazine, visits to the sister school across the pond, and various pranks. Even the prudish Hundert is seduced into smacking a baseball through the headmaster's windshield, surprisingly joining the fleeing boys to avoid detection.
Playing the dedicated teacher, Hundert takes on Bell as a special project and sees surprising results when the lad blossoms. Pretty amazing when the big “moment” consists of the teacher expressing “belief” in Bell and gives him his old classics book, but after a fateful decision that will haunt Hundert the rest of his life Bell plays a real life Brutus to Hundert’s beloved Mr. Julius Caesar contest. But this is an American film and a Universal product no less, so the patented formulaic lesson plan will temper Hundert’s failure with his prize student with hope.
Only the individual charms of the actors will save this film from complete oblivion, unless conservative forces that mistakenly believe that a simplistic “back to the basics” in school curriculums actually will change the moral and academic fiber of the country. Other clichéd lessons can be gleaned, like “never trusting politicians” and the evils of cheating, but for the most part The Emperor’s Club is so based on moral principles that squeeze the humanity out of its protagonist that it serves only as unreal allegory. A soulless rehashing of Dead Poet's Society is hardly the savior of American education, nor has it become a memorable film for Universal Pictures.