A good cry

For a few minutes at the beginning of Mr. Holland's Opus, it might occur to you that if George Bailey, the Joblike hero played by Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life, were a teacher rather than an S&L owner, this film might have been moot. Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) is a man whose hopes never come to pass as he instead settles for middle-class stability. A musician who wants to be a serious composer, Mr. Holland "falls back" on teaching as an interim profession, but like Bailey, his life doesn't turn out anywhere near as perfect as he had anticipated.

On Mr. Holland's first day of school in 1964, he doesn't expect to teach high-school kids and conduct a makeshift orchestra for long; his wife Iris (Glenne Headly) predicts that in four years they will have saved enough for him to devote himself to composing full time. But life has a way of screwing up his plans: An unexpected child proves to be a greater financial burden than he'd foreseen; tutoring an enthusiastic but woefully underconfident clarinetist (Alicia Witt) cuts into his composing time; school functions end up placing greater demands on him than he would prefer; and so on. ("I want to compose in my spare time," he deadpans to the skeptical phys. ed. coach. "Spare time? I can't remember when I had any" is the laughing retort.) By the end, when Mr. Holland isn't the frisky young turk but the sage and revered icon, the faux Capra-esque warmth is nearly smothering.

The motif of a man who almost unwittingly mortgages his dreams in exchange for dedicating his life to helping others could be a terrific medium for developing an undercurrent of sad poignancy to Mr. Holland's life; it worked gangbusters in It's a Wonderful Life. Although he works on his symphony for years, once Iris gets pregnant he apparently abandons composing as a realistic career goal. But the idea of personal loss is never seriously revisited.

Whereas the angels who narrate the first half of It's a Wonderful Life forever remind the audience of the corny, allegorical significance of the story, Mr. Holland's Opus seems to lose sight of its major thematic objectives almost immediately, opting instead for a panoramic view of the positive influence Mr. Holland has on three generations of music students. There's certainly nothing inherently wrong in the approach taken by the film, but it's still a disappointment that the director, Stephen Herek, and the screenwriter, Patrick Sheane Duncan, didn't devote as much effort to fleshing out new and interesting aspects in the life of Glenn Holland as his character spends helping his students.

Mr. Holland's Opus is a crowd-pleasing, heartwarming drama in the most dubious sense of that term. The story is told in four segments, one about every 10 years. It takes us from Holland's first disastrous semester of teaching--he's passionless and stiff and the kids know his heart and mind are elsewhere--and concludes on the day of his retirement.

To make his inevitable transition from short-timer to devoted educator more profound, when we first meet Mr. Holland he's a stuffed shirt with the kind of naive pomposity that distinguishes many novice teachers. Dramatically this may be a sound, safe choice, but it doesn't seem to fit the character. Despite his 10 years of playing one-night gigs and his love of John Coltrane, Mr. Holland is simply not as hip and jazzy as a '60s-era musician should be; he doesn't look comfortable with the bongo-playing type--he is already stern and arch. Too often you sense that the script conceives of Mr. Holland as wholly mutable, a character whose attributes may be randomly juggled to serve particular dramatic "messages" rather than having his character shape them.

Still, Mr. Holland's Opus is one of the more effective of the recent breed of "influential teacher" films, a long and often respectable tradition starting with Goodbye, Mr. Chips and continuing up through last summer's Dangerous Minds. It works, in part, because it correctly observes many of the common denominators we appreciate: the jar-head vice principal (W.H. Macy), who is alone among the cast members in having his hair style remain unchanged for 30 years; the sardonic principal (Olympia Dukakis), who makes the most of her limited screen time by humanizing what could have been a mere bureaucrat; and the dumb jock who only takes band to get an easy passing credit.

Many of these characters' moments don't come across as cliches about high school so much as canny archetypes. Some even rise to the level of quiet, lightly comic footnotes about changing values. (In 1965, two girls are sent to the principal's office for skirts that don't hit the knee, while in 1995, two boys with nose rings walk hand-in-hand through the halls without raising an eyebrow.) When a young female student develops a schoolgirl crush on Mr. Holland, or when he lectures a student that "No one ever said life is fair," you're less likely to roll your eyes sarcastically than to wax nostalgic over a similar event from your own school days.

The script frequently does allow the cliches to pile up without abatement or excuse, though. In the familiar vein of humanitarians who neglect those closest to them, Mr. Holland's devotion to his students seems to exceed that to his deaf son. That leads to the following exchange between Glenn and Iris: "I'm a teacher!" he says; "You are his father!" Iris exclaims; "I'm both!" he retorts. It's not exactly scintillating banter, to be sure (and badly mined from Miss Jean Brodie's classic refrain, "I am a teacher, I am a teacher first, last, and always"). The scene is fairly typical of the awkward, unfocused way the film presents its numerous faces.

Mr. Holland's Opus seems obsessed with cataloguing every potential "defining moment" in a teaching career--bad senior-play auditions, contentious staff meetings, the death of a student in the Vietnam War--and finding places in which to stick them. Oddly enough, it misses some of the really big issues like integration, teen pregnancy, suicide, and drug use; the students at Kennedy High are, all in all, the cleanest public-school kids you've ever seen. That's probably because this is not a film concerned with form, but with effect: It wants most of all to put a lump in your throat, or move you to tears, and to do whatever it takes to get that reaction, and, more often than not, it succeeds.

Dreyfuss assays the role of Glenn Holland with the correct mix of gusto and reserve, and Headly has one very powerful scene trying to communicate with her deaf son.

Dreyfuss, Headly, and Joseph Anderson (who plays the Holland's son, Cole, as a teen-ager) are responsible as well for numerous other tearful scenes, which can be enjoyable if you don't get caught up in analyzing just how much manipulation went into making them so.

In the end, the objective weaknesses of Mr. Holland's Opus are also its subjective strengths. The universality of its appeal is that it is less about one man than the culture of all educators; it tracks the trajectory of any teaching career with depressing accuracy. When one character suggests that Mr. Holland probably thinks of himself as a failure, having never become rich and famous, there's no support for that conclusion about him--rather, it's meant to serve as a kind of generic ode to all adults who made a difference but perhaps didn't realize it at the time, like Harry Bailey's toast to brother George.

Miles Davis said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," and he's right. Mr. Holland's Opus attempts to prove that while that may be true, writing about the love of music, and the dedication of a teacher, is a valid and cockle-soothing endeavor. Like the equally sappy and lovely Scent of a Woman, it's smooth enough that you might be fooled by its sincere and affecting moments without realizing how cluttered with trashy sentiment it truly is.

Mr. Holland's Opus strikes an implicit bargain: If you won't overthink it, it will give you a good cry. Those are the kinds of bargains you sometimes can't pass up.

Mr. Holland's Opus. Hollywood Pictures. Richard Dreyfuss, Glenne Headly, Olympia Dukakis. Screenplay by Patrick Sheane Duncan. Directed by Stephen Herek. Opens January 19.

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