Films like this one, in which an unconventional teacher inspires his students to be something more than what’s expected of them, are common enough to constitute a minor genre on their own. In addition to Dead Poets Society, we’ve seen Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver. Those are just the ones that I could name off the top of my head.
Peter Weir‘s film concerns itself with an exclusive boy’s prep school known as the Welton Academy, which seems to exist to mold young men into future Ivy Leaguers, whether they like it or not. Robin Williams plays John Keating, a Welton alumnus returned to replace the school’s recently retired english teacher. Robert Sean Leonard plays Neil Perry, a student with dreams of becoming an actor, against the wishes of his father (Kurtwood Smith), who sees only medical school in his son’s future. Ethan Hawke is Todd Anderson, a shy Welton legacy whose distant family sees the school more as a distant, expensive baby sitter.
The problem and chief irony of Dead Poets Society is that this film, which urges students to Carpe Diem (“seize the day”) and break free from mindless conformity, is so slavishly cliched. From the beginning of the film, the battle lines are drawn in pure black and white, with no hint of subtlety. The school’s administration, represented by the rigid, almost calcified Mr. Nolan (Norman Lloyd) is the oppressive enemy of free expression only because the needs of the plot require such an enemy to exist.
The “rebellion” of a few students, including Neil and Todd, takes the form of resurrecting Keatings old “club,” the Dead Poets Society, a looseknit band of students who meet in a damp cave and read poetry to each other. The trouble is that the film never bothers to establish how they were inspired to do that. Sure, Keating’s methods are unconventional, but this cause is never satisfactorily connected dramatically to its onscreen effect. Keating stands on his desk, does an impression of Marlon Brando performing Shakespeare and, bang, his students are reading poetry in a cave.
Robin Williams’ performance deserves note. Most of the time he’s effective and convincing as a senstive, intelligent and literate man, but then he starts in with the Brando and John Wayne impressions and you get the feeling the film was taking the easy way out. It would have been much more “inspiring” to have Robin Williams play the unconventional teacher without resorting to recognizable schtick. The filmmakers should have taken notice that the only non-animated film to successfully integrate Williams’ comic persona into its story was Good Morning, Vietnam.
Neil’s conflict with his father leads to a tragic but melodramatic and predictable climax, which leads to a predictable fate for John Keating, which leads to a predictable final act of defiance by his students. This is one of those films that ends exactly how you know it will fifteen minutes into watching it. Rather than seizing the day, Dead Poets Society dutifully plays it by the numbers.