For one thing, the utterances of Aristotle and the deeds of the Caesars remain, in Mr. Hundert's view, as vital today as they were in the day of toga fashion and poisoned banquet wine. All right. Fine. But as a result, Hundert has become, from the soles of his brogans to the school crest on his blazer, a sanctimonious moralist: Not one nasty speck of relativism has seeped into his noble head. Behavior cops like William Bennett and holier-than-thou TV preachers like Jerry Falwell will love this movie. So will belligerent absolutists like the current White House occupant -- even if he doesn't know Constantine from canola.
The bulk of the movie takes place in the 1970s, but it may as well be the 1770s. The big annual event at St. Benedict's is something called the "Mr. Julius Caesar" contest, in which well-scrubbed boys wearing striped neckties answer ball-breaking questions about the Pax Romana and the rhyme schemes of Catullus. The moderator? None other than the beloved Mr. H., who doesn't distinguish between inspirational teaching and intrusive preaching.
Like all prep-school dramas, this one provides an assortment of troubled teens (the young cast includes Paul Dana, Jesse Eisenberg and Rishi Mehta). But the central conflict pits Hundert against the new boy on campus, a magnetic, wisecracking rebel with a comically patrician name: Sedgewick Bell (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys' Emile Hirsch). The son of a flinty U.S. senator, Sedgewick immediately intrigues his classmates with his French girlie magazines and his defiance of authority. Hundert is determined to build Bell's character and demonstrate the value of hard work. That's his real job, as he sees it -- he's a molder of men. When Bell begins to blossom, Hundert declares, "He's come out of the darkness into the light."
But after Hundert momentarily compromises his own sacred principles by slipping Sedgewick into the Mr. Julius Caesar finals ahead of a more worthy contestant, the wayward boy wins by cheating. Hundert is devastated. The tale might have ended there on a note of cool irony. But screenwriter Neil Tolkin and director Michael Hoffman (a former Rhodes scholar) extend their morality play into a third act.
Flash forward to the 25th reunion of the St. Benedict's Class of 1976. Sedgewick Bell (now played by Joel Gretsch) heads a multibillion-dollar corporation and has his eye on the U.S. Senate, just like dad. But for some reason, he needs to clear his name and his conscience with a replay of the Mr. Julius Caesar contest. Once more, Hundert moderates. Need we reveal the outcome? Suffice to say that the moviemakers force-feed us one last plate of ethical spinach, indulging themselves in what neoconservatives are fond of calling "moral clarity." The terminally virtuous Mr. Hundert -- who, in Kline's fussy performance, is a bundle of principles rather than a real human being -- declines even in the end to descend from his pulpit. After spending two hours with him, you won't need a bath for a month.