Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss), the overworked high school music teacher of Mr. Holland’s Opus, has much in common with the protagonists of other sentimental education fables (Conrack, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds). He’s imaginative, he’s compassionate, he’s insanely dedicated. He connects with certain students — the lumpish, the blocked — other teachers wouldn’t have bothered with. He makes his kids love learning; he makes a difference in their lives. Mr. Holland. What a guy!
Ultimately, none of this quite describes why I found Glenn Holland a captivating character. Teachers in movies tend to be starry-eyed saints. Most of them hold court over classes of inner-city delinquents, and they make education sexy — a matter of ”seeing” with your heart. The reality, of course, is that few human beings are as unglamorous as middle-class American high school teachers. To make contact with their students, they almost have to be shameless; they have to relinquish their dignity and get right down there on the kids’ own level. As played by Richard Dreyfuss (in his most vital performance in years), Mr. Holland is that kind of teacher: a showboating nerd, too cynical — and too snowed under by responsibility — to wear a halo. An oddball blend of authority figure and arrested- development case, he spends his days spinning intellectual burlesque shows out of his own enthusiasm.
When Holland first arrives at John F. Kennedy High School in 1964, he’s not interested in teaching. He’s a musician — a composer, damn it — but with a young wife (Glenne Headly) to support, and so he takes what he thinks will be an easy day job. Instead, he’s sucked in — by the thankless hours, and by the desperate mediocrity of most of his students. To wake them up, he plays rock & roll in his music-appreciation classes. We’ve seen this bit before, but Dreyfuss, acting in period, backs off from portraying Holland as some sort of cool-jerk swinger. He is, rather, an enlightened square, a man who embraces the beauty of pop music from within his own highly straitlaced temperament. The film provides satisfying details of Holland’s pesky extracurricular labors — organizing the marching band, staying after school to show some arrhythmic jock how to play the bass drum. Holland becomes a great teacher in spite of himself. Yet his dreams nag at him. (Off hours, he works away at his beloved symphony.) Like so many high school teachers, he never quite shakes off the yearning for adventure — for ”greatness” — beneath the workaday samaritan he has become.
Directed by Stephen Herek, Mr. Holland’s Opus is a big, patchy, episodic weeper set against the postwar rise and fall of America’s secondary-school music programs. The movie spans some 30 years and is patterned after It’s a Wonderful Life. Holland, like James Stewart’s George Bailey, has to give up his pipe dreams and see that humanity is his work, that it always has been. Mr. Holland’s Opus teaches more than its share of lessons, and it has what must be a dozen lump-in-the-throat climaxes. When Holland helps a distraught student (Alicia Witt) who’s been squawking away on the clarinet, you can feel him reaching, step-by-step, for how to get through to her, and the sequence earns its tug. But when it’s revealed — with thudding irony — that the Hollands’ young son is deaf, it’s one tearjerk too many, thank you. Still, this subplot allows Dreyfuss to draw on the quality that’s been missing from his performances in the last decade — his anger. His most dramatic moment comes when Holland explicates Beethoven’s deafness for one of his classes. You feel how deeply he chimes with the affliction (and despises it). Mr. Holland’s Opus needs its sprawling, passage-of-time structure. As Holland greets new generations of kids, we see his teaching style evolve; he gets tougher, smarter, more intuitive. The film captures how the constant turnover of students keeps educators poised between loss and rebirth, fuddy-duddyism and eternal kiddishness.
That balance is there, most pleasurably, in Dreyfuss’ performance. The wonders of makeup and hairpieces have taken 20 years off his age, and his acting feels 20 years younger, too. He has an edgy vigor here that recalls his ebullient star turns of the late ’70s. Dreyfuss shows us the extraordinary energy required of a high school teacher (conducting the band, Holland can’t stop singing to himself), and also the moments of patience and quick-thinking clarity. In one episode, Holland develops a flirtation with a beautiful senior (Jean Louisa Kelly), which is treated with kid gloves. Yet if the film skirts the issue of lust, it never backs off from Holland’s desperation, his secret doubts about the life he’s chosen. By the end, we’ve seen so many sides of Holland that the movie earns its sentimental epiphany, its celebration of one man’s middle-brow valor. In it’s cornball manner, Mr. Holland’s Opus gets at the way we’ve all felt about certain teachers in our lives, the ones who actually succeeded in turning our heads around.