Mr. Holland's Opus
1996, PG, 145 min. Directed by Stephen Herek. Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Glenne Headly, Jay Thomas, Olympia Dukakis, William H. Macy, Alicia Witt, Joseph Anderson, Anthony Natale.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 19, 1996
Mr. Holland's Opus is the kind of movie that only a person who really doesn't like movies could love. It's a movie whose grandiose swagger is meant as compensation for its message about the resignation of the human spirit to smaller gratifications and vistas. It's a movie that wants to guide us, to sustain us through our darkest hour of lost ambition. It uses as its role model the story of Glenn Holland (Dreyfuss), a young, married man who takes what he considers a “fallback” job as a schoolteacher in order to pay the bills until he finishes writing the opus that will establish his “real” career as a modern composer of music. Of course, along the way Glenn becomes sidetracked -- teaching music to teenagers becomes his true life's work while his dream of writing one immortal composition becomes a faint relic of his vainglorious youth. Mr. Holland's Opus wishes to be the It's a Wonderful Life for our time: a movie that reminds us that our immortality rests with other people, that we are only as great as the people whose lives we touch. Maybe yes, maybe no -- that debate's outside this sphere. But what is true is that Richard Dreyfuss is no Everyman -- this is the Dreyfuss who Ahab'ed a shark in Jaws, who led us to the “monolith” in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and who originally left American Graffiti-ville to write the Great American Novel. Here, we have him getting into trouble with the school authorities because he uses rock & roll to teach music theory to bored students. He learns to inspire each and every “ungifted” student who comes his way. When he tells a thoroughly talentless but diligent pupil (Witt), “Close your eyes and think of the sunset,” her squawking clarinet suddenly exudes the graceful tones of a Benny Goodman. As a bonus, this girl who served as his first breakthrough as a dedicated teacher, later grows up to become governor of the state. I guess we are meant to wonder about the welfare of the state had it not been for Mr. Holland. We are also to believe that the greatest trauma of this music man's life is the deafness of his son -- the film's supreme example of irony in action. But all is resolved when Glenn learns to sign John Lennon's song, “Beautiful Boy,” and dedicate it to his son, emphasizing the line about how “Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans.” Despite the fact that the movie is constantly telegraphing its beliefs to the audience with all the subtlety of a high-school textbook, it takes Glenn Holland decades to make his peace with the unexpected path his life has taken. We get to observe his decades-long progress in what feels like hourly detail. When, at the end of the movie he is rewarded by his former pupils and all the others whose lives he has touched, the grandness of the tribute somewhat belies the film's message about acquiescence to mediocrity. The only thing missing from Mr. Holland's retirement tribute is the gold watch.