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TO SYRUP, WITH LOVE

God knows that American schools need inspirational teachers and that the funding cuts that threaten arts education everywhere are lamentable. But when Hollywood third-stringers get their hands on such material, the results are doomed to flunk the test.

Mr. Holland's Opus, in which Richard Dreyfuss portrays a budding composer who sacrifices a career of fame and fortune for three decades as a high school music teacher in Oregon, is the kind of squeaky-clean, feel-good, tear-jerking movie that you want to embrace even while recognizing the shameless way it's pushing your buttons. Selfless and only occasionally compromised by shortsightedness, Dreyfuss's Glen Holland sends wave after wave of graduates out into the world, each of them profoundly changed by his dedication, not to speak of his gift for linking Bach and rock (infuriating, of course, another uptight assistant principal) or instilling lifelong confidence in a shy redheaded girl struggling with the clarinet.

Fine. But screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan is a hopeless sap and manipulator, and director Stephen Herek (the auteur of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) has all the dramatic subtlety of a dockworker with twelve beers inside him. Dreyfuss works hard here, and he has his moments, but Mr. Holland is so stuffed with Hollywood bombast and soap-opera melodrama that when the aging hero gets axed in the end (by his old antagonist, of course), it's hard to care. This cautionary tale has long since lost its uplift and has fallen on its butt.

A couple of details. It's not enough that Mr. Holland, a reluctant and floundering outsider at first, blossoms into the school favorite; in its search for sophomoric irony, the movie has to give him a deaf son he can't relate to. It's not enough that he teaches a willing but clueless black kid to play the drums; the movie has to kill the kid off in Vietnam. It doesn't suffice that our man brings the best out in a sparkling beauty named Rowena, the talented star of the senior musical; she has to put the moves on him and invite him to run off with her to New York. Not only that--he thinks about it for a minute before retreating back to his faultless wife (Glenne Headly) and his own bottomless virtue.

Old worthies like Mr. Chips, Miss Jean Brodie and the entire membership of the Dead Poets' Society would probably tell him to knock it off. Instead, Herek and Duncan push the inspiration factor over the top, as if this were a revival meeting instead of a movie. The less said the better about the climactic concert (which you can hear coming for the entire two and a half hours), except to say that the redheaded girl who couldn't play the clarinet those many moons ago is now the state governor and that the standing ovation lasts a lot longer than it should.

But then, didn't you learn in school that Oregon is a leading corn producer?

 
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