If there's one movie genre that I'm an absolute sucker for, it's late twentieth century period dramas. Second Hand Lions. Forrest Gump. The Help. October Sky. Apollo 13. I think it's because they all take a interesting concept and put it in a visually engaging historical setting. The point is, I love all of these films, and now I've added another one to the list: Mr. Holland's Opus. It stars Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfuss in the title role.
Glenn Holland is a struggling composer and musician who desperately wants to compose full time. He and his wife, Iris (Glenne Headly) find themselves living in an Oregon town where Holland gets a job as a High School music teacher. At first, Holland views the position as a short term gig, a mere stepping stone on his way to becoming a famous composer. But things happen, as they always do, and he stays on. The years go by, and Holland makes lifelong friendships, touches and influences the lives of many of his young students, and welcomes a son into his family, all the while going through the trials and tribulations that inevitably accompany life. At the same time, we get to see the major events of the 60s, 70s, and 80s through his eyes.
Mr. Holland's Opus is one of those movies that is very effective at what it tries to communicate. In this case, it succeeds in communicating raw, unadulterated emotion. It's not schmaltzy or sappy, and it's by no means a feel-good movie, but it totally sells the feeling and mood its going for. From the opening to the conclusion, and everywhere in between, this movie will put a smile on your face, and it will make your eyes water when it wants to. It all hinges on the characters, really. We see Holland's trials, we see his friendships develop, we see his mundane exploits. These range from the hilarious to the sad to the heartwarming. Mr. Holland's Opus manages to be all of these things simultaneously while not feeling like a tonal train wreck, just like all great dramas.
It helps that Richard Dreyfuss totally sells it as Glenn Holland. And really, he overshadows all of the other actors in this picture. First of all, we're given a rich, complex character like Holland. He starts out as a slightly jerkish person, but evolves and matures into a caring, almost fatherly figure to his students, and eventually to his biological son, Cole, with whom he initially has a strained relationship due to a very important reason. Then we get an A-list character actor like Dreyfuss, who proceeds to act the heck out of the role, to the point where he gets nominated for yet another Academy Award. I'm telling you, the sheer subtlety, the sheer talent, the sheer emotion he puts into it far outshines any and all of the other undoubtedly talented actors in this film.
In a movie about music throughout the late twentieth century, there is, of course, good music. We've got stuff from John Lennon, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Beethoven, and many others. Additionally, it is marked by other virtues, such as being pretty darn funny, and while it does focus primarily on Holland, all of the other characters have a clear-cut motivation. Principal Helen Jacobs (Olympia Dukakis) wants to give her students a good education, while later Principal Gene Wolters (William H. Macy) wants to run an efficient school. Hard to blame him for coming off as a bad guy, in view of how messed up schools are these days, but even then he's played well enough that we can sympathize with him, thought not as much as we can sympathize with Holland. Iris wants to help her husband and raise a family, and Bill Meister (Jay Thomas) the gym teacher (and later, Holland's best friend) wants to do for the jocks what Holland is doing for the music students. Even Cole (played by various actors, including Joseph Anderson and Anthony Natale) wants to be understood and accepted by his father, a good motivation as any.
Mr. Holland's Opus deserved an Oscar, pure and simple. I guess it was enough that it was nominated for one, but still, it totally deserved it. Dreyfuss lost out to flipping Nicolas Cage, for goodness sake. But nevertheless, I am glad to have watched this film, and I happily grant it the highest esteem I can afford to it. The only reservations I have are with a smattering of bad language, so parents, please be discerning. In the meantime, we have a wonderful, moving film with great acting and awesome emotion, and a beautiful, rhythmic premise. I think Mr. Holland would appreciate that.
Fun fact: Terrence Howard, who would later play Rhodey in Iron Man, played a student of Holland's named Louis Russ! Man, he looked young. I wonder what Don Cheadle was doing in 1995...
Image courtesy of wikipedia.org