Based on Ethan Canin's short story "The Palace Thief," The Emperor's Club happily reunites the dynamic duo of director Michael Hoffman and perenially underrated star Kevin Kline. Hoffman stepped in when Kline thought better of his own plans to direct under the gun of a potential actor's strike last year. Though its tempting to imagine what Kline's film might have looked like (perhaps much the same), Hoffman brings this somewhat unusual material a deceptively reassuring polish.
The Emperor's Club tells the tale of dedicated career teacher Mr. Hundert (Kline), who plays out a celebrated but, to his mind, unexceptional tenure, marked by a speed bump of a student named Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys). Bell arrives in the nostalgia-ready early seventies, but who's counting? The anachronistic dialogue--from the unlikely scribe Neil "Jury Duty" Tolkin--includes the rejoinder "Duh!" and a stinging suggestion to Hundert to show the kids how it's done, "old school." At any rate, Bell is a first-rate snot, predictably produced by his callous senatorial father (Harris Yulin). Hundert can't shake the impulse to right the wrong-headed lad, which leads to personality-defining tests for both of them.
The Emperor's Club cannot help but evoke its prep school forbears, and while the story effectively (and deceptively) echoes the likes of Mr. Chips, its more recent cousins provide the more fruitful comparisons. Like Scent of a Woman before it, The Emperor's Club displays a certain amount of off-putting emotional neatness (and calculated star power played against a fresh face), but scores points for having its own honor code. Hoffman's film wedges itself in between the stodgy tradition and "cool" teacher-chic that fueled conflict in Dead Poets Society. The Emperor's Club cannot reach (nor does it truthfully aspire to) that film's emotional heights, but a certain freedom of three-hanky effort allows subtler dividends. Here, Kline's teacher is not so coolly rebellious (more believably, his student nemesis fills that bill) and must face a genuine misstep of his own.
Indeed, the film's best asset is its ability to work against its own familiar trappings to evince genuine surprise from its spontaneous characters and flexible narrative. Kline smartly undermines his own theatrical flair to paint a charmingly hesitant movie teacher just a little less easy to love, but a lot more easy to believe. If The Emperor's Club doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel, it does take it for a pretty good spin.