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The Emperor's Club (2002)
Rated PG13

Starring: Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, and Rob Morrow

Rating:
***
out of
*****

When I first heard of the plot of The Emperor's Club, my thoughts were along the lines of "Oh, great, a Dead Poet's Society rip-off." You know the type of movie I mean. The type where a teacher goes head-to-head with a group of students and slowly wins them over and they all overcome life's obstacles with the lessons learned from each other. I couldn't have been more wrong. While The Emperor's Club does contains some elements of that type of film, it tells a story in a much more realistic fashion.

Kevin Kline plays the role of William Hundert, a Classics professor who teaches Greek and Roman history at St. Benedictus, a private school for boys with rich and influential parents. Trouble arrives in the form of Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of a senator. He's crude, disrespectful and, immediately, he gains the admiration of his classmates. He's the stereotypical smart slacker-type, who'd rather argue about why he should read a book than simply reading it because he's told to do so.

Predictably, Sedgewick's grades aren't particularly good, so Mr. Hundert contacts his father in Washington, DC. This seems to motivate Sedgewick and, suddenly, his grades improve and he shows some promise as a student. A traditional contest at the school -- the Mr. Julius Caesar Contest -- is fast approaching. The contest places the top three students in direct competition with one another answering questions from Mr. Hundert's class. It's considered quite an honor to be chosen to compete. Sedgewick's final paper, at first glance, leaves him just one point shy of getting into the top three. Mr. Hundert, in what appears to be a nod to Sedgewick's improvement, nudges the final paper's grade just enough to place him into the top three. During the actual competition, however, Mr. Hundert catches Sedgewick cheating. Rather than exposing him outright, Mr. Hundert does something that makes Sedgewick lose without anyone knowing the wiser.

If it sounds like I've given away the plot entirely, be assured that I haven't. In fact, what transpires after these events makes up the bulk of the movie's conflict between the principles of an honest man and those of the mind that getting what you want is worth lying and cheating no matter the consequences. The film asks the audience, "Is there a middle ground where lying and cheating in the name of righteousness is OK?" This raises some interesting points and provides much more to chew on than I expected from the movie.

Kevin Kline, predictably, is in top-form. He's one of the screen's top character actors and this is as good as he's ever been. Emile Hirsch plays the smart-ass very well. He's made quite an impact this year with his performances in this film and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. The rest of the cast is acceptable in their neat and tidy cardboard cutout roles. The film truly belongs to Kline and Hirsch. (Although Joel Gretsch plays the older Sedgewick in slimy fashion just as well.)

Is The Emperor's Club a great film? No, it's not. It's schmaltzy and somewhat akin to a made-for-TV movie but at its core is a strong message about hypocrisy that deserves to be seen. This would be a fine film for families to watch together and discuss the implications of the character's actions.

Trivia: Kevin Kline was featured in the 2002 movie, Orange County, but was uncredited. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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