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It is unfair to judge a filmmaker solely on the basis of his past efforts. Unless, of course, those efforts include Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and The Mighty Ducks.

Such is the case with Mr. Holland’s Opus director Stephen Herek, whose latest film, despite its heavy-handed bid for high seriousness, is no less goofy than his previous ones. Opus opens in the mid-’60s, when newly married musician and composer Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) takes what he thinks is a temporary teaching job. He hates it and bitterly resents its interruption of the serious business of his life—composing a symphony. The demands of the real world, however, contrive to keep him in the field: His wife Iris (Glenne Headly) becomes pregnant (which requires the immediate acquisition of real estate), and the couple later learn that their son Cole (Joseph Anderson) is deaf and requires specialized schooling. As the years pass, though, Holland comes to love the vocation he once despised.

All of this happens over a 30-year period—a passage of time that is conveyed so unconvincingly that screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan ought not to have attempted it at all. (You can, however, tell it’s a new decade when characters appear in different eyeglasses.) Early in the film, Holland is depicted as a Johnson-era hipster who wins over a classroom full of apathetic kids by demonstrating that the Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto” is based on Bach’s “Minuet in G Major.” Later, he teaches one student the fundamentals of rhythm with Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and another how to overcome her performance anxiety with the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie.” Meanwhile Holland’s nemesis, a crew-cut vice principal who keeps himself busy sending girls home because their skirts are too short, warns that “rock ‘n’ roll leads to a breakdown in discipline.”

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It is this era that Opus evokes most effectively, but the filmmakers are intent on an epic scale. Hence the montage of topical news footage and the sudden blast of Jackson Browne signaling the advent of the ’70s. Like Forrest Gump, Opus repeatedly uses such reductionist symbolism to denote the passage of time rather than writing it into the script. This shorthand might be tolerable if it weren’t so hackneyed: At one point, for instance, Opus features a Vietnam War montage with John Lennon’s “Imagine” playing in the background. Always the teacher, Holland makes one of his classroom slackers attend the funeral of a former student killed in Vietnam in order that he learn a valuable lesson about life. (The script is somewhat vague about what, exactly, that lesson might be.) Says Holland—inevitably—”What a waste!”

Though Holland lavishes attention on his students, he has little to spare for his own child. He is unwilling to acknowledge Cole’s deafness, and his refusal to give up the possibility of his son’s being “normal” makes him reluctant to let the boy learn sign language. Husband and wife play out the debate over deaf education that still rages today: He favors voicing and assimilation while she champions American Sign Language. Iris finally wins, and the scene in which she does so has more emotional resonance than any other in the film. (Indeed, despite all the talk about Dreyfuss, Headly’s performance as Holland’s long-suffering wife is the only memorable one here.)

Though the musician’s relationship with his deaf child seems to offer the most compelling theme in the movie, it is hastily resolved in a scene whose over-the-top sentimentality must be seen to be believed. In a stroke of masterful parenting, Holland tells his deaf son that he’s upset because John Lennon has been shot, adding, “but you wouldn’t understand.” He subsequently makes amends by singing—yes, singing—Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” at a musical performance to which Cole’s class has been invited. This scene is every bit as squirm-inducing as you might expect. And evidently the sensitivity training didn’t quite take: Holland introduces the song by announcing that it’s a good thing so much of his audience is deaf.

Its facile sentimentality aside, the most galling thing about Opus is its appropriation of the plot from, of all things, It’s a Wonderful Life. Like George Bailey, the teacher exchanges grandiose dreams for a prosaic reality and becomes convinced that he has wasted his life. He’s also treated to a revelatory final scene in which every character in the film reappears and attests to how he has touched their lives (as one former student tearfully explains, “We are your symphony”). Such moments effectively cancel out the film’s modest merits. The script is not wholly without insight into teaching (“I wanted to be someplace—anyplace—else,” Holland says of his high-school days. “I never realized the teachers felt the same way”), but it mostly just raises one question: Isn’t it about time for a third Bill and Ted movie?CP