"The Emperor's Club" makes one valuable point. It makes it poorly, but it makes it nevertheless, and so credit should be awarded.
At best, it is a cautionary fable on the perils of charisma. A young man -- handsome, bold, confident, sublimely aware of his animal magnetism -- subverts the old virtues, essentially taking over an elite prep school and, by virtue of symbolic suggestion, the culture.
What a great lesson this is for Washington: Beware the handsome, the dynamic, the theatrical, the sexy, the passionate, the clever of tongue. Behind that glowing beauty and dazzling wit may lurk a common cheat.
At worst, which is the other 98 percent of the movie, it's a simpering, ineffective ersatz-drama, so simple-minded and unrealistic and so full of fussy stupidity, it exiles you. Still, I suspect it will be loved in some quarters, as it can also be decoded as an endorsement of "character education," a current buzzword. But it continually defines character in the most meaningless of ways: as showy palaver about a moral code rather than as commitment to that code even at the cost of personal difficulty.
The setting is the most bizarrely imagined prep school in movie history. It makes Harry Potter's Hogwarts seem like an example of gritty urban realism. At St. Benedict's, in 1974, the boys are tame as kittens, as innocent as daisies. What are they rebelling against? Nothing. They appear never to have heard of Vietnam, Watergate, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, marijuana, sex, cigarettes, sports or acne. Is this the Stepford School for Boys? Is this sci-fi? This sure ain't no American boyhood as ever lived by an American boy.
The fuddy-duddy Mr. Hundert (Kevin Kline) is the most beloved figure on campus (a campus, needless to say, full of Tudor buildings, greenswards and playing fields, rose gardens and stately elms). St. Benedict's own Mr. Chips, he strides through this airless Arcady in his J. Press ensemble of tweeds and rep ties, yammering before his crew of mild boys about the glories of the Roman Empire. The movie wants you to love him -- it is predicated upon your love for him -- but to me he was a sanctimonious prig.
He lectures the future rulers of America -- "The Emperor's Club" is quite brazen in accepting the private school's self-aggrandizing sense of itself -- that success is not enough; they must contribute as well. He uses the intricacies of Roman politics to make that point and . . . now wait a minute. This is one of the many moments in the movie that simply do not track. The politics of Rome make many points, but the need to contribute to society at large is not one of them. Those politics were as corrupt, venal and charisma-betrayed as our own. (Haven't these bozos ever heard of classical Greece? Now there was a time!)
In any event, when he is not laboriously chalking his outlines on the blackboard, Mr. Hundert grades papers in the faculty lounge in coat and tie, takes a late Scotch and soda, and makes goo-goo eyes at another faculty member's wife so as to inform us, via the old-movie code, that although slightly effeminate he is not homosexual. One day, as he is elucidating the difference between Ingenuus the Ingenious (A.D. 260) and Regalianus the Regal (also A.D. 260) a new boy is brought to his class. Sullen, beautiful, snide and sarcastic, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) is every teacher's greatest challenge, the intelligent but uninterested underachiever.
So the film is another one of that long dreary line of academic pepper-uppers: how the teacher devises the secret way to reach this closed-off creature and help him find himself, or rather help him find the self that the teacher and the society want him to be. In this case, the metaphor for socializing young Sedgewick is a Roman-history version of Trivial Pursuit in which the boys have an obscure-fact quiz-off to see who gets to be known as "Mr. Julius Caesar"! Really. In 1974 there'd be a boy who wants to be publicly proclaimed "Mr. Julius Caesar"? Maybe "Dr. Julius Erving," but . . .
In any event, an episode of cheating is uncovered, or rather covered up. Lacking the character to face the cheater, Mr. Hundert instead subtly sabotages him, though he himself has already cheated a boy out of a rightful place in the competition. Some character education!
Then there's one of those old-movie moaners, the label "25 Years Later" where old Mr. Hundert faces the fabled Class of '74 and is asked to replay the Julius Caesar contest, to give one of the losers a chance to redeem himself. It would help if the actors who played the boys had been replaced by actors of some authority, but the older-generation crew is dreary to a man.
I have the sense that the filmmaker, Michael Hoffman, took a far subtler literary document ("The Palace Thief," by Ethan Canin) and tried to shoehorn its ironies and complexities into the formula of the modern feel-good fairy tale. Where complexity within the characters is suggested, it's quickly milled out in the generic spirit of sentimentality about the school experience. Where the original ending may have been bittersweet and full of self-recrimination, this ending is triumphant and self-congratulatory. You walk out yearning for the rebellious, grungy untidiness of real kids, who, unlike these paradigms of twitchy self-righteousness, at least represent emotional reality.
The Emperor's Club (109 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13, and I have no idea why it's not PG.