NEW YORK — 'MR. Holland's Opus," the good-hearted new drama starring Richard Dreyfuss, is so unabashedly old-fashioned that young viewers will quickly guess it has ancestors in cinema's past.
Famous ancestors, too - like "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," made with Robert Donat in 1939 and again with Peter O'Toole in 1969, and "The Browning Version," starring Michael Redgrave in 1951 and Albert Finney in a 1994 remake. Other countries have also gotten into this act, most recently in the Japanese drama "Madadayo," directed by Akira Kurosawa.
What these movies have in common is their central character: a crabby, crusty schoolteacher who molds young lives and makes the world a better place, never realizing what a saint he is until the tear-jerking finale.
Details of the plot vary from movie to movie. The prototype for the genre, Mr. Chips, is humanized by the love of a good woman and chastened by the loss of his wife and child. The protagonist of "The Browning Version" learns humility from his wife's infidelity and a pupil's contrasting loyalty. But everyone is reduced to tears in the end, and since that's the main point of these pictures, it's not surprising they keep spawning new offspring.
The film begins in the turbulent '60s, which appear less than turbulent for our hero. He's a musician whose main problem is finding time to compose his Great American Symphony while earning a living on the wedding-and-bar-mitzvah circuit.
Drawing the hilariously wrong conclusion that a teaching gig would give him plenty of spare time, he takes over the music department of a suburban school. Challenges quickly flock to his busy baton: cantankerous administrators, a gym teacher soliciting special privileges for an athlete with poor grades, and more attention-craving students than he'd ever wanted to meet.
Problems persist outside the classroom, too. His symphony never quite gets off the ground, and his family life takes on new complexity when he realizes his baby son has a hearing impairment and may never be able to appreciate the art he's devoted himself to since childhood.
Ever plucky and resourceful, Mr. Holland copes with all this and more, trudging through 30 years of professional dedication until the ultimate enemy - cuts in the state education budget - mows down his career, if not his energy and enthusiasm. But don't worry, the kids he's taught will never forget him. To make sure we can't forget him either, the movie cooks up a sentimental ending that will have spectators wincing through their helpless Hollywood tears.
To its credit, "Mr. Holland's Opus" refreshes the current movie atmosphere with its sincere concern for issues that often get more lip service than real support nowadays: the value of schoolteachers to society, the need to back up educational ideals with money and resources, and perhaps most important, the centrality of culture to any nation that wants to call itself civilized.
To its discredit, "Mr. Holland's Opus" surrounds these excellent notions with more gooey emotionalism than the average multiplex screen can comfortably hold. Dreyfuss receives part of the blame, since his engaging but generally bland performance fails to provide the note of tough-minded thoughtfulness that might have given the story a semblance of grownup seriousness.
But the lion's share of responsibility goes to director Stephen Herek and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan, who play to the heart rather than the mind at every opportunity. They turn a potentially provocative tale into a feel-good extravaganza that's dismayingly out of touch with reality. And this despite its ostensible goal of dealing with reality quite directly, through its politically tinged finale - complete with a visit from the governor, a former pupil of guess who - and its historical film clips, which pepper the action for no apparent reason except a desire to echo the huge popularity of "Forrest Gump," gimmicks and all.
Atop the supporting cast, Glenne Headly gives an appealingly low-profile performance as Mr. Holland's long-suffering wife, and Olympia Dukakis makes a vivid impression as a principal whose bark is worse than her bite. Jay Thomas and W.H. Macy are just right as two of the hero's colleagues. Three personable actors play his son at different ages, and Jean Louisa Kelly is memorable as a high school senior who almost steals Mr. Holland's heart.
Their talents can't prevail against the soggy screenplay, though. Ultimately this drowns out every asset in sight, making a long and ambitious story seem as dinky as the five-minute symphony Mr. Holland finally unveils in the overwrought concluding scene.
* 'Mr. Holland's Opus' has a PG rating. It contains some mild sexual references and scenes about disability.