Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society wants to make its point really, really badly. If you gave a man on the street a dime for every time someone here says “carpe diem,” the Latin version of YOLO, he’d never have to worry about where to sleep again. What little nuance the movie has is about on the level of your average Sunday morning superhero cartoon. Yet Dead Poets Society nevertheless ends up being a decent, if superficial, tribute to the importance of thinking outside the box. After all, when Robin Williams is involved, there’s no way you can say no.
Dead Poets Society takes us into the little bubble of Welton (a.k.a. “Hell-ton”) Academy, a New England boarding school that epitomizes the stuffiness of 1950s WASP America. Desegregation, the Beats, and other cultural shocks are taking the rest of the country by storm, but throughout it all, Welton remains a defiant bastion of pretentious old white men. Newly hired English instructor John Keating (Williams), himself a Hell-ton alum, arrives with a mission to shake things up. “Seize the day, boys,” he exclaims while standing on his desk. “Make your lives extraordinary!” At a school where teachers deduct five points every day for late homework and students spend most of their free time memorizing Latin declensions, Williams is a storm of fresh air for his students, especially star pupil Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) and the painfully quiet Todd (a really young Ethan Hawke). Now inspired to dream big, Neil, Todd, and a host of other students find themselves chasing girls, sneaking off to caves, acting, and, in Todd’s case, actually talking.
Naturally, this sudden change in methods doesn’t rub off well on the rest of Welton’s more conservative faculty. And it’s with his overly histrionic caricatures of these evil old white guys that Weir begins to stumble. The headmaster spanks students and literally orders Keating to “stop teaching the kids how to think for themselves.” Neil’s father, who seems to find the very idea of Neil doing any kind of extracurricular an affront worthy of expulsion, makes Amy Chua look open-minded and supportive. The hardliner attitude these grown-ups take is so stubbornly narrow-minded that it’s laughable; Weir could have inserted a big “SLAP THESE IDIOTS IN THE FACE” sign in the background and spared them the effort of talking. Yes, these adults are being real pig-heads. Yet there is some value in the continuity, discipline and responsibility they espouse, even if too much of any of those can be limiting. This movie ducks a more thoughtful examination of the role of tradition to opt for the safe option of bashing all adults as flat-out idiots.
Moreover, the antidote the movie espouses to this undeniably evil authority, the all-mighty carpe diem, doesn’t offer much by way of consolation. Some of the things the boys do thanks to Mr. Keating are inspiring, like Neil’s attempts to get into acting. But much of what they do doesn’t hold water. The central act of rebellion behind the title of the movie, the formation of the so-called “Dead Poets Society,” basically involves the boys running off to a cave, loudly reciting poetry, uttering strange chants, smoking pot, and getting laid with whatever girls they can dupe into coming with them. They’re carbon copies of the wandering bums in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, who spend 300 pages driving at 100 mph cross-country, picking on women for sex, and discussing “intellectual” things like Nietzsche while getting high. Those bums had no life, and neither do these. The formulaic prep-school life may not be great, and not everyone needs to go to Harvard and become a doctor. But the model of “seize the day” the Dead Poets Society presents as an alternative is nothing more than a formula for reckless abandon and wasted potential. Weir obstinately refuses to delve into what carpe diem really means, and in doing so he gives unneeded legitimacy to the laziness and irresponsibility of adolescence.
To be fair, the stuff that’s left after you strip Dead Poets Society of its extreme characterizations and heavy-handed moralizing isn’t a total mess. Watching these boys horse around gives you a strange feeling of nostalgia, like you’re watching your childhood on replay. Perhaps because of its refusal to deal with shades of subtlety, its strong belief in the goodness and potential of these students, the movie has a heartening coming-of-age aura around it. And it gets a huge, life-saving plus from Williams, who does a magnificent job embodying the character of Mr. Keating. He’s not as outrageous as he was in Mrs. Doubtfire or Good Morning, Vietnam, but this is still Williams playing a classic nonconformist, that one person who turns serious people and important business on their heads with relentless cheek. He mixes fun and work to make a teacher who feels human and earnest without being flippant or superficial. If every teacher were like Mr. Keating, high school dropout rates would be cut in half.
Still, Williams’ performance can’t hide the fact that most of the movie sounds like it was written by an angsty teenager with an axe to grind. Here, the good guys are inevitably the students, taught, conditioned, coerced into giving up their real dreams for the dreary realities of the modern world. And the bad guys are obviously the teachers, cruel, unflinching, and completely lacking in any human sentiment. The straw men Weir clumsily sets up and knocks down are so obviously fake that he actually hurts whatever case he wanted to make in favor of the humanities or youth liberation. It’s really only thanks to Williams that the movie manages to get any kind of message across. For the chance to watch him, one of the great stand-up comedians, this is worth a watch. Otherwise, The Emperor’s Club does a much better job finding meaning in prep-school life.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Starring: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Norman Lloyd, Kurtwood Smith
Running Time: 128 minutes
Produced by: Steven Haft, Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas
Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Tom Schulman
Image of final scene in movie from here.