Dead Poets Society is so much an assembly line of inspirational movie cliches, it’s almost scientific. All your least favorite tropes of the subgenre are here: an encouragement to laugh at an antagonist getting his; a push to weep when faced with an unthinkable tragedy; perfectly timed orchestral swells that order you what to think and feel; support to jump up and applaud the moment something finally seems to go right.
Some of it works fine. The film is about a group of teenage boys whose lives are changed by an English teacher (Robin Williams, giving an iconic performance) who inspires them to seize the day and think freely as parents and other teachers command them to stick to the status quo.
Because the backdrop is 1959, because the setting is a Norman Rockwell-pretty New England boarding school, and because these boys are expected to be rigidly religious, en route to becoming financially successful, and straight, this is revolutionary. Not one of them has ever been encouraged to create or ponder how they actually want their lives to play out.
Make no mistake: it is certainly touching seeing them break free – at least temporarily – from the cages into which they’ve been placed by their conservatively minded instructors and parents. The teens even end up reforming the Dead Poets Society, a sort of Beatnik-imitating poetry-reading club that peaked around the time their teacher himself was in school, and as a result take risks they might have never otherwise sought out.
For most of its first and second act, then, the movie plays well, even though we’re obliquely aware that the Williams character is much more a tool for these characters to use than he is an actual human. That only four of the society’s members are rendered generally three-dimensionally, the others mouth-pieces who are not a lot else besides followers who could be played by pieces of crinkled printer paper.
We don’t feel the need point out its flaws anyway – the movie’s about insecure kiddos coming of age in a way most of us didn’t get to experience for ourselves, and there’s something stirring about that. The movie also gains likability by casting young actors who are age appropriate (a circle of acne can still be seen on a cherubic Ethan Hawke’s chin) and easily evoke our tucked-away adolescencent feelings.
But then Dead Poets Society throws a tragedy at us like a middle-school dodgeball opponent competitively whacking us in the face: it’s out of the blue and unnecessarily cruel. The feature just as satisfactorily could have simplistically stuck with the this-particular-life-experience-helped-define-who-I-am-today trope so perfected by 1986’s Stand by Me. Characters don’t necessarily have to change the courses of their lives based on the experiences had in the film they’re headlining. But we can still nevertheless be affected by the truth that this period was one of the most defining in their upbringing.
But Dead Poets Society not only goes through with predictable inevitabilities – it also sprinkles in this hanky bait to make the finale belt in our faces like the climax of a Mariah classic. From the moment the previously mentioned tragedy makes its way onto the scene, the film goes from pretty effective coming-of-age drama to primetime emotional manipulator. Screenwriter Tom Schulman might as well be standing atop a desk himself, shaking his fist and screaming, “You better be moved by this!”
Yet there’s a lot to like here. The take-home message that you should live the way you want to rather than the way those around you want you to is convincing, and so is Williams’ performance. Future stars Josh Charles and Hawke are also very good. The scenery is something of an updated version of a ‘50s Hollywood melodrama.
But the more Dead Poets Society starts pandering to broad-stroked emotional breakthroughs, the more unbearable it becomes. No movie has tried harder to be described as “moving,” and no movie has strained more to be quotable. I’ve also never seen Williams wink so many times in the scope of a feature length. But maybe he’s subtly letting us know, as well as the characters, that this ride that is this movie isn’t going to last forever – it just sometimes feels like it. C
Robert Sean Leonard
2 Hrs., 7 Mins.
Dead Poets Society
eter Weir’s Dead Poets Society is offbrand Frank Capra, manufactured to get Oscar voters on its side and encourage emotionally manipulated audiences to burst into applause once the closing credits start rolling. It is a Dave Matthews Band album, all choruses. It is a cinematic suicide soda purchased at a 7-Eleven, sticky and saccharine. It is a factory-made product that sometimes resembles a movie.