Arthur Knight (Will Lyman) is a very competent college professor. Respected, if not loved by his students, this staid and formal man is serious about teaching his class called “The American Novel.” Yet, for some mysterious, seemingly unspoken reason, this Harvard associate professor — and former college roommate of John F. Kennedy — has been denied tenure yet again.
His timid and demure wife Gwen (Cady McClain) sort of misinterprets Arthur’s brooding, blaming it not on his career frustrations, about which she has no knowledge, but on what she suspects is the affair he’s having with his pretty poetry student Molly Thayer (Kate Super). Yes, Arthur’s having an affair, but with his young teaching assistant William Anderson (Alexander Chaplin) rather than the perky co-ed.
Set in the fateful fall of 1963, “Alma Mater” is a stylistic throwback of sorts. Director Hans Canosa’s film captures its era quite well, both in terms of what the audience sees on the screen and in the way they see it. “Alma Mater” simply feels like a movie that was made during that time. As stately and unhurried as its lead character, the film grabs the viewer’s attention with its silent moments – the refreshing absence of incessant music and sound effects.
Unfortunately, the film’s story doesn’t quite match up to its style. For one thing, there are too many minor characters and uninteresting subplots floating around. Chief among these is the tedious crush blue-collar student Charlie Green (Andre Van Den Houten) has on Molly. Charlie really seems to exist only so that Gwen has a way to exact some measure of revenge on her wayward husband. Then, too, comes the wrongheaded way Canosa uses JFK’s assassination as a tool to neatly tie up all the loose ends in his characters’ lives.
This is an interesting, if flawed film, but one that just doesn’t quite work. Ultimately, “Alma Mater” is a film that’s as relevant to its viewers as a Harlequin Romance would be to the students in Professor Knight’s literature class.