Movie Review: Irritable Academic will be set for life, if he survives “The Sabbatical”

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Style points to the makers of “The Sabbatical” for puncturing, once and for all, the stereotype of “nice” Canadians for all of us below the 49th parallel.

The film’s perpetually dyspeptic “hero” is cranky enough to put that “They’re just so much NICER than us” image to rest.

James Whittingham, sort of a grumpy Dan Aykroyd, plays Professor James Pittman, a photography professor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. He’s the kind of guy who reads the student evaluations at the end of the semester and vows revenge upon the worst of them. Nasty “customer comments” card remarks at the offending student’s coffee shop is about as clever as that gets.

James is about to go on sabbatical, the one thing, after tenure (job security) that non-academics hate about academia more than most anything — aside from the informed liberal politics that dominate the world of the educated “elite.”

And James underscores that year-off-with-pay resentment by planning on taking it easy, getting over his burn-out. That’s when his dean hits him with “We’re all looking forward to seeing the BOOK you bring back.” He wants a “magnum opus” of photography, with an implied “publish or perish” threat in his plea. He wants proof that “someone likes your work well enough to kill trees for it.”

Damn. So much for leaning back, recharging the old batteries. James, given to withering comments to his publisher and complaints to his academic wife (Bernadette Mullen), who tunes him out, is stuck with this ax hanging over his head. The fact that this “street photographer” is as harsh on his own work as he is on everybody else in his field isn’t a help.

But that’s how he meets his muse.

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Lucy (Laura Abramsen) weeps at art shows, picks at her guitar in the park and flirts — just a bit — with this crank with a camera. She’s a painter, a student and when James loses his license (don’t ask), the free spirited/reckless driving/romantically-complicated Lucy agrees to drive him around so that he can take pictures.

The movie’s limited landscape — in and around Regina — suggests James’s do-the-bare-minimum approach to this project. Whatever he’s photographing, it won’t require travel.

Its charms lie in the grumpy way James deals with the world, a culture overrun with junk art and the lazy thinking that cannot grasp the difference between real “depth” and emotional connection to a picture, a real book (not a comic one) or film that aims just over our heads, and pandering piffle.

In one giggle of a scene, James offends a young woman by taking her picture. She demands he “delete it,” even as he tries to explain celluloid film cameras don’t work that way. The generation of “idiots” all around him can’t even grasp the difference between digital and analog, or so it seems to him.

“Sabbatical” is an “Educating Rita” of slighter-than-slight charms, too short and close to the surface to achieve much more than vasectomy gags, a pot-bellied academic’s first acid trip and the joys of ridiculing a “fraud” of a “blind photographer” (Paul Crépeau). 

But Whittingham, an actor unknown on this side of the border, is onto something with this grump, a misunderstood EveryMan just talented enough to fear his own lack of talent, just smart enough to see the limits of his intelligence, and the horrific shortcomings of the next generation’s.

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MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual references and brief drug use

Cast: James Whittingham, Laura Abramsen,  Bernadette Mullen, Mike Gill, Paul Crépeau

Credits:Directed by Brian Stockston, script by James Whittingham and Brian Stockton. A Freestyle release.

Running time: 1:22

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