Virtue may be its own reward, but it almost never rewards an audience. Movies about do-gooders send most normal people into glucose overload, their gums aching, their bellies bloated. Thus it is quite pleasing to report that "Mr. Holland's Opus" manages to celebrate both virtue and astringency with equal fervor.
The key to the film, and the key to Richard Dreyfuss' great performance as a much put-upon suburban high school music teacher who never seems to have time for his own life, is that he isn't trying to "do good"; he's just trying to get through the day in a profession into which he's drifted and for which he professes no great gifts or passion. On the whole, his philosophy seems to be, I'd rather be composing. He somehow manages to get through the day -- through 30 years of days, in fact.
This is another in the genre of the holy teacher film, the most sacred relic of which is probably the original "Good-bye, Mr. Chips," and the nearest pretender "To Sir, With Love." But it's a '90s version, craftily updated. Its title should be, "Shut Up, I Love You." And love them he does, even when he tells them to shut up. And that's what's good about "Mr. Holland's Opus": In spite of himself and in spite of them, he does care deeply. They are slow, dull, unmusical, poorly motivated, arrogant, ill-disciplined, flirtatious, obnoxious, whatever. But he loves them unconditionally, even against his better judgment, even as he knows in some ways he'll be giving up his life for them. He's the guy in the platoon who jumps on the grenade. It just takes 30 years to explode.
Dreyfuss, who has seemed as if he's just barely going through the motions of late ("Silent Fall"), gives one of his best performances in years. He consciously dials Mr. Holland's own self-awareness down until it's hardly there, until the man seems completely incapable of seeing the larger view or of placing himself into any self-gratifying moral context. His Glenn Holland is obsessed with the smaller things of life and, always with a
wince or a grimace, he takes on new responsibilities and sets about to raise the fallen, liberate the imprisoned and inspire the disinterested. He does it without a shred of self-pity, for very little money, 60 hours a week, including Saturday, rain, shine, snow or sleet. Martyr? He's never heard the word.
But he's a man, not a paragon. When an especially bright, pretty young woman bonds with him more passionately than is healthy, we see the want in his eyes, the flicker of temptation across his face as his lips dry and he swallows. He can be short, he can be snide, he can be irritating. But he cannot be indifferent.
And he loves music. When he conducts, or when his stumpy little body begins to pump in time to the rhythms his band or orchestra have just, however ineffectively, released, he seems transfigured, almost radiant. He forgets the self and becomes a higher order of being, and can even find the dignity in marching down the street in a third-rate Barnum & Bailey costume and leading 7.6 trombones in a small parade. That's what he's selling: Not himself, but the glorious liberation of the sounds.
The movie, written by Patrick Sheane Duncan (who, amazingly, wrote and directed the completely convincing Vietnam war drama "84 Charlie Mopic" some years back), is one of those cavalcade things that cuts away now and then for a montage of familiar images that signify "The Sixties," "The Seventies," "The Eighties," "The Nineties" as syncopated to the music of the day. That part is only OK.
Also only OK are some of the dreary yet inevitable domestic crises the film shunts its Odysseus of the school band through. Holland's son, in an irony so crude it deserves to be in a lesser movie, is born deaf and can't share the music with him, causing a bitter estrangement that is then all too easily solved. Glenne Headley has the tiresome task of playing his equally virtuous but not nearly so interesting wife.
But the film is excellent on high school culture, particularly the joy of teaching and the fear of bureaucracy. Olympia Dukakis has a nice turn as a sweeter-than-she-seems principal and William Macy does a nice job as her brusque inheritor. And the movie builds to a nice advertisement for the essential nature of arts education.
Still, "Mr. Holland's Opus" is at its best in its evocation of a man who could not help himself from giving and whose generosity of spirit is of such incandescent purity it enriches not only the kids he teaches but the planet he lives on. Anybody who ever got a pat on the back from a teacher ought to treasure it.
'Mr. Holland's Opus'
Starring Richard Dreyfuss and Glenne Headley
Directed by Stephen Herek
Released by Hollywood Pictures