Friday December 29, 1995
Screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan reportedly came up with the idea for "Mr. Holland's Opus" while stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam. Instead of getting out of his car and beating up minorities as Michael Douglas did in "Falling Down," Duncan listened to the radio, and when he heard a report about the potential elimination of teaching jobs in California, he thought about the teachers who'd influenced his life and decided to write a story exalting their profession.
It was an admirable reaction, and exalt he did, with the tale of a man compelled to give up his dream of writing a world-class symphony to become instead a world-class high school music teacher. A case of opus interruptus.
Richard Dreyfuss plays this man, Glenn Holland, with the dedication of Mr. Chips and the self-doubts of George Bailey. In fact, he is Mr. Chips and George Bailey. When you dream up plots in a traffic jam, crazy things can happen, and while rummaging through his memories of past teachers, Duncan somehow came up with a composite of two classic screen characters.
The result is a film of epically hollow sentimentality, a movie that tells you how to feel every step of the way and ends on a symphony of false notes. The moment when we learn what Mr. Holland's Opus really means makes the ending of "It's a Wonderful Life" look like an exercise in restraint.
"Mr. Holland's Opus," like "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "It's a Wonderful Life," spans decades--1965-1995--in telling the story of a man who doesn't appreciate the impact he has on other peoples' lives until his own life has perspective and shape, and the fruits of his labor are apparent even to him.
The event that leads to this revelation for Holland is that proposed cutback in education that started Duncan thinking back in the traffic jam. After 30 years of self-sacrifice, of putting off his dream for the good of his family and the enrichment of his students, Holland finds himself facing the ax. When budgets are cut, arts are the first to bleed.
Duncan and director Stephen Herek, a regular on the Disney payroll since doing "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead," would have done well to have opened the movie with news of the budget crunch and of the imminent fate of the beloved music teacher, and told his story in flashback. That would make its forward leaps less jolting and keep in our minds the thought that this man's life will add up to something special.
As it is, opening in 1965 with the young Holland giving up motel piano gigs for a teaching job and moving fitfully ahead from there, the story mimics the John Lennon song line, "Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans." Though the truth of that line--from "Beautiful Boy," which Holland has occasion to sing--is the point of the movie, few of the snapshots from his life-in-progress are particularly compelling.
In fact, other than his passion for music and his determination to inspire that passion in his students, Holland is not a very likable character. He is so obsessed with that unfinished opus and his feelings of failure that he ignores his supportive wife (Glenne Headly) and neglects--to the point of abuse--a son who disappoints him by being born deaf.
It is to Dreyfuss' credit that Holland is sympathetic at all. An actor of no small sentiment himself, Dreyfuss plays the teacher like an exposed nerve, alternately agitated and soothed, and in the most critical scenes, when Holland is discovering ways to make classical music relevant to students in the era of rock 'n' roll, it's impossible not to be swept up in his excitement.
The spotlighted relationships between Holland and his students, however, are dreadful cliches. In one case, he helps a girl (Alicia Witt) with the musical aptitude of a chimp learn to play the clarinet like Artie Shaw. In another, he inspires a lovesick singer (Jean Louisa Kelly) to pursue her dream to Broadway, and in deciding whether to go with her, comes to grips with his own destiny.
There are grace notes throughout the production. Besides Dreyfuss, there are strong supporting performances from Olympia Dukakis, as his school's savvy principal; W.H. Macy, as his humorless, arts-loathing colleague; and from Anthony Natale, the deaf actor who plays Holland's grown son. The gifted Michael Kamen wrote a score befitting a salute to great music, and the makeup department did such a good job of turning the clock back on Dreyfuss, it looks as if he'd been working on the movie in real time.
Alas, that's what it feels to watch it, too.
Mr. Holland's Opus, 1995. PG, for mild language. An Interscope Communications/Polygram Filmed Entertainment production, released by Buena Vista for Hollywood Pictures. Director Stephen Herek. Producers Ted Field, Michael Nolin, Robert W. Cort. Screenplay Patrick Sheane Duncan. Cinematographer Oliver Wood. Editor Trudy Ship. Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Music Michael Kamen. Production design David Nichols. Art direction, Dina Lipton. Set decoration Jan Bergstrom. Running time: two hours, 22 minutes. Richard Dreyfuss as Glenn Holland. Glenne Headly as Iris Holland. Jay Thomas as Bill Meister. Olympia Dukakis as Principal Jacobs. W.H. Macy as Vice Principal Wolters. Alicia Witt as Gertrude Lang.