Picks and Pans Review: Dead Poets Society

updated 06/12/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/12/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard

Given that this film espouses freethinking, features a noble, good-hearted teacher and focuses on an admirable bunch of teenagers, you'd think only a mean dog of a reviewer could dislike it.

Woof.

Williams plays the teacher, who, in 1959, has just joined the faculty of the ivy-heavy, painfully stuffy Vermont boys prep school where he was once a student. Williams is, as usual, ingratiating. Like his deejay rap in Good Morning, Vietnam, his classroom shtik is funny—his version of John Wayne doing a line from Macbeth is pretty foolproof, after all.

The young actors who play the school's students are almost uniformly impressive, especially Robert Sean Leonard as the aspiring actor whose father insists that his son be a doctor; Ethan Hawke, the shy younger brother of one of the school's star students; and Josh Charles, an introverted boy trying to pursue his crush on a cheerleader at a nearby coed school. They're all undercut, though, by silly situations, starting with the instant obsession for poetry they develop after Williams's first class.

Doing in Williams and his young colleagues are scriptwriter Tom Schulman, a newcomer, and director Peter (Witness) Weir. By making everything a setup, Schulman and Weir destroy their film's argument—that an open mind, freely applied to the world, is the goal of education.

Williams is really doing jokes, not a character; since he has few scenes outside the classroom, it's hard to evaluate his deeds, so his words seem hollow. Meanwhile, everyone who opposes the freedom Williams represents is a straw man stuffed with platitudes and self-righteously knocked down. That goes for the school's rigid headmaster, Leonard's grim father, a sanctimonious student (played nicely by Dylan Kussman) and even the jock boyfriend of the girl Charles lusts after.

The movie ends like a cartoon jalopy braking and falling apart. Leonard becomes consumed with the theater; this is a 16- or 17-year-old, remember, saying, "Acting is everything to me." There is a horrible death (with slow-motion reaction scene) that seems to imply that freethinking is dangerous after all. Then things abruptly twist back, thanks to more buffoonish behavior by an authority figure.

Schulman and Weir seem to have had in mind a substantial movie. They ended up making Goodbye, Mr. Chips Meets Revenge of the Nerds. (PG)

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