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A FILM IN A CLASS BY ITSELF

THE EMPEROR'S CLUB ***

RATING: PG-13

The leading school of thought says that to understand "The Emperor's Club" you have to know the movie tradition from which it comes. That you really can't analyze the film without comparing it to its predecessors, especially "Dead Poets Society." Even that it's an imitation cashing in on the successful cliche formed by Robin Williams as Mr. Keating, the inspirational private school teacher of "Dead Poets."

To all that I say . . . hogwash. Critics are correct when they say that "The Emperor's Club" serves as a botched clone to "Dead Poets Society." It lacks the passion, the charisma of earlier films. Perhaps the only worthwhile way to view this movie is to forget it's supposed to be a clone at all.

Kevin Kline as Mr. Hundert plays a subdued, strict-minded professor of the classics. In Hundert's eyes, moral character is the strongest currency, and elucidating the character and convictions from Caesar, Plato, Socrates is half his reason for teaching about them. Shaping his students' ethics is his proudest aspiration, a goal that is rocked by new student Sedgewick Bell, a U.S. senator's son who breaks every rule at St. Benedict's school. When Hundert takes on Sedgewick as his personal mission, attempting to reform him, he finds his window of opportunity in the school's annual Mr. Julius Caesar contest, which honors the student with the best knowledge of classic civilizations. So hungry to see Sedgewick succeed is Mr. Hundert that he inflates his scores to get him into the contest's final round.

And then the movie takes an abrupt twist from cliche. The most original parts of the movie take place a full 25 years after Sedgewick graduates. Hundert, forced into retirement, has time to answer the call when Sedgewick, now a successful businessman, holds a class reunion and a rematch of the Mr. Julius Caesar contest.

Revealed there to Hundert are truths about his successes and failures in guiding his students' character, the profound impact he had and also the profound failure he produced.

It is here that "The Emperor's Club" earns its stripes as a capable, original piece.

Jordan Gerow is home-schooled.

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