An idealized tribute to a charismatic teacher who has devoted his entire life to music appreciation, “Mr. Holland’s Opus” has the same old-fashioned texture as “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” the 1939 MGM classic that won Robert Donat an actor Oscar. Hollywood Pictures hopes the same fate will touch Richard Dreyfuss, whose performance is quite effective and surprisingly restrained. Older audiences will be moved by the story, but the crucial variable is to what extent younger viewers will embrace this schmaltzy, Capraesque saga that’s not only set mainly in the past but also feels as if it were made back when.
Covering 1965 to the present, tale concerns Glenn Holland (Dreyfuss), a passionate composer who believes that his true calling is to write one memorable piece of music. Over the course of his life, however, Holland becomes a reluctant hero, a man who fulfills himself not at the piano, but at the blackboard, where his impassioned teaching and love of music inspire a disparate array of students.
Borrowing heavily from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Patrick Sheane Duncan’s script stresses the pleasures and rewards in life that are unplanned and unanticipated. Initially, Holland accepts his school job as a “backup” position that will give him free time to compose, never imagining that his next 30 years would be spent in the classroom. But forced to redefine his dream, Holland ultimately realizes that he is not a failure, that his legacy as an inspirational teacher is just as important as his longed-for opus.
In the first segment, Holland is indoctrinated by Helen Jacobs (Olympia Dukakis), the tough school principal who immediately sees through his bitter self-recrimination. Though there are many on-the-job frustrations, teaching in the 1960s was not nearly as problematic as it is today; Holland’s biggest “sin” is introducing rock ‘n’ roll to his students.
One particularly effective episode involves Gertrude Lang (Alicia Witt), a highly motivated but basically untalented student whose potential is unlocked by Holland. Later on, Gertrude becomes a catalyst for Holland’s personal change of heart.
Rather tiresomely, saga switches back and forth from school to family life. At home, married to a most understanding and loving wife, Iris (Glenne Headly), Holland has to accept the sad, somewhat ironic realization that their only son, Cole, is deaf. At first, most of the burden falls on Iris, but when confronted by his son and charged with neglect, Holland fully accepts his parental responsibilities.
While Stephen Herek’s film has an epic arc embracing the era’s major political events (Vietnam, Nixon’s resignation) and cultural traumas (John Lennon’s assassination), it lacks epic vision. The narrative unfolds as a catalog of familiar, often cliched episodes, such as the talented student’s (Jean Louisa Kelly) crush on her teacher, dreary faculty meetings peppered with humor, individualistic teachers being reproached by rigid administrators, preparations for annual graduation ceremonies. It’s well-mined territory.
One of the few concessions to current realities is an acknowledgment of the severe budget cuts in arts and humanities programs, cuts that eventually force Holland into retirement. Overall, though, a nostalgic aura envelops the picture, which encourages viewers to think fondly of — and pay tribute to — the one teacher in their lives who made a difference.
The message of “Mr. Holland’s Opus” is reconciliatory, urging viewers to accept the fact that life doesn’t always turn out as planned but can hold surprises when approached with an open mind and heart.
Dreyfuss is the kind of actor who has been getting better as he grows older, and here he acquits himself with a sensitive, honorable performance that returns full circle to 1980’s “The Competition,” in which he played a young pianist. Dreyfuss’ rendition of Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” to his son is an emotional highlight that will reduce some viewers to tears.
The often underrated Headly lends fine support as the sensitive wife and mother. A secondary cast that includes Jay Thomas as the happy-go-lucky football coach, Witt as the ungifted student and Dukakis as the conduit to Holland’s redemption, adds much needed color to the routine proceedings.
Pic was shot in and around Portland, Ore. Clocking in at 142 minutes, it could have benefited from a healthy trimming.