'The Professor': Film Review

Courtesy of Lionsgate
Johnny Depp in 'The Professor'
More an intriguing literary conceit than a credible drama.
5/17/2019

Johnny Depp plays a man with six months to live in Wayne Roberts' character study.

Not exactly the parade of louche bad behavior moviegoers may expect from its star in this scenario, Wayne Roberts' The Professor casts Johnny Depp as an academic who, told he has just months to live, chooses to stop pretending that his life hasn't been largely a failure. Aiming to get a few laughs while presenting an essentially serious take on a question many of us have contemplated, the picture fares better at finding occasional moments of warmth than at convincing us of its characters' reality. Star power is unlikely to carry it far in an under-promoted theatrical release, though observers of Depp's recent troubles may see cause for hope in his restrained but not phoned-in performance.

Depp's Richard gets the bad news right at the start: Stage IV lung cancer, the doctor says, with probably a year and a half to live if he begins treatment immediately. He opts for the express train — no treatment, six months to live — and spends a few hours muttering "fuck" to himself as he walks around town.

Meaning to inform his family that night at dinner, Richard is sidetracked by others' news. His wife, Veronica (Rosemarie DeWitt), reacts with such insulting condescension when their daughter, Olivia (Odessa Young), declares she's gay that the latter storms off. Then Veronica, seemingly delighted about the dagger she's about to plunge, announces that she's having an affair with Henry (Ron Livingston), the boss Richard loathes. Thus preempted, Richard decides to keep his condition secret.

That doesn't mean he's not going to change some things. In the literature class he teaches at some impossibly picturesque liberal arts college, he says he'll be doing things "very differently" this semester: He lets most of his students flee, handing out barely passing grades in exchange for the privilege of not having to teach them. To the 10 or so who remain, he assigns the task of digesting one great book and teaching it to the class. Then he takes them all out drinking.

Richard's colleague Peter (Danny Huston) winds up being the only person who knows about the cancer for much of the film. Huston makes him exceedingly solicitous, working to keep his friend upright as he marches, usually drunkenly, toward the grave.

Scenes of Richard with his young disciples seem meant to build up a kind of world-weary take on the inspirational-teacher genre, but too little happens between the prof's declaration of intent and his closing arguments. In fact, though the screenplay by Roberts (Katie Says Goodbye) draws attention to its structure with frequent chapter headings, it plays like a work that has been victimized by too many editors, each trying to achieve something different.

Mid-film, Olivia asks her father why he has remained married to Veronica. Though the script gives Richard an excellent reply, the film as a whole fails to convince viewers on the subject: The marriage is a plot device, not a union with the one-of-a-kind unhappiness Tolstoy might've recognized. DeWitt is much too good an actor to play a woman so unbelievable; when it's time for her and Depp to find a spark of compassion between their characters, there's nothing to draw on. Even tougher to buy is Richard's farewell to the daughter he's meant to love unreservedly.

Production companies: Automatik, Infinitum Nihil
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Johnny Depp, Zoey Deutch, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston, Danny Huston, Odessa Young
Director-screenwriter: Wayne Roberts
Producers: Warren Carr, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Greg Shapiro
Executive producers: Braden Aftergood, Rian Cahill, Stuart Ford
Director of photography: Tim Orr
Production designer: Annie Beauchamp
Costume designer: Carla Hetland
Editor: Sabine Emiliani
Composers: Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner
Casting directors: Kate Caldwell, Melissa Kostenbauder

Rated R, 91 minutes