I can’t recall ever truly hating a Johnny Depp star vehicle, and I’m not going to start with “The Professor.”
But I’m tempted.
It flirts with being offensive, but falls short. It’s not entirely maudlin, not wholly misogynistic, but close enough.
And he’s mildly diverting in the part, playing a coasting-on-tenure/drifting through marriage college English professor who gets a cancer diagnosis in the opening scene and takes the same attitude towards his life that he abruptly hurls at his class.
“From here on out, we’re going to be doing things differently.”
Professor Richard Brown is going to drink. He’s going to womanize, when practical. He probably ran out of you-know-whats to give sometime before. But getting that news on the same day his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) tells him she’s having an affair with the college president, a “nutless sack” (Ron Livingston), was kind of the last straw.
And he’s only starting with muttering the f-bomb at faculty meetings (Danny Huston is the department chair and his best friend), later wading into the duck pond bellowing that same word at the heavens.
No. Routine won’t do.
Richard’s journey is tracked through cutesy interludes — “Chapter I: I have something to say,” “Chapter IV: It’s really starting to kick in.”
He weeds his class of drones, slackers, future “government workers,” “corporate whores” and the like. The few left are to pick one book they haven’t read, a classic, analyze and do an oral report on it. But first, Richard must make time for “an emotional bender for 72 hours.”
He doesn’t tell his unfaithful wife and college-age daughter (Odessa Young of “High Life”), because each is caught up in her own thing. Daughter Olivia has picked this very moment to come out. Mom dismisses it as just a phase, but Dad is the very picture of seen-the-light/concerned-supportive parent.
And his class teeters on the edge of degenerating into chaos, as he asks them to procure weed for him and he takes them out drinking, all part of a flailing last ditch attempt to “reach into our lives and try to extract some sort of wisdom” from it all.
Richard is a fairly tedious character — sexist, intolerant of feminist/lesbian lit and that one feminist student whose “co-op lifestyle” his assignment is shaking up.
He has little more to confide to this best friend other than “I’m only mildly disappointed in myself…Just let me die alone. Let me die in peace, ride this thing out.”
Depp, who has finally taken to showing up for roles appropriately groomed, cuts a fine figure as a college prof on a Life’s End bender. He’s had far too much practice playing drunks for this to be a strain.
But Richard is singularly undeveloped and uninteresting. Why would a coed like the one played by the sassy starlet Zoey Deutsch remain in his class, much less pursue his company and/or guidance after hours?
His dictum that they all remember that “each and every moment, we are composing the story of our lives” and are thus obligated to “make it an amiable read, or at least an interesting one” is not advice he’s ever followed or ever will.
The women are singularly dull in this contrivance by the director of “Katie Says Goodbye” (which starred Olivia Cooke). Sculptor-cheater wife, female students as objects of scorn, shallow wives and harridan colleagues (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), they’re a sorry lot in writer-director Wayne Roberts’ eyes.
Depp’s charming way with Richard taking his leave to “explore a smidgen of infidelity” doesn’t go far enough (having sex with a barmaid in the bathroom) toward making him loathsome. Because that, at least, would be more intriguing, given the character and the movie more edge. He never quite achieves that.
The few one-liners that land are a pallid assemblage, too.
“I have cancer. It’s all right. Everyone my age has cancer.”
“We’re well-to-do middle-aged WASPs, we can get prescriptions for anything.”
Writer-director Wayne Roberts shows little imagination in any character, any situation, any academic cliche. He has Richard drive a 1980 Mercedes diesel because, I guess, nobody thinks college professors drive Saabs any more.
At least Roberts didn’t get his way in titling “The Professor.” The director of “Katie Says Goodbye” was sure he’d get to call this “Richard Says Goodbye” (the print I saw was so-titled). That’s enough to make anybody plunge into a duck pond and hurl a few f-bombs at the heavens.
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content and some drug use
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rosemarie DeWitt, Zoey Deutch, Danny Huston, Siobhan Fallon Hogan
Credits: Written and directed by Wayne Roberts. A Saban Films release.
Running time: 1:30