The Professor stars the beleaguered Johnny Depp, who has gone from the iconic Keith Richardesque Captain Jack Sparrow to Davey Jones’ Locker. Once upon a time he was Tim Burton’s right hand man and now he’s making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Lawsuits, drug abuse, a failed marriage… his latest claim is that Hollywood is boycotting him with his latest film, Minamata, not getting a US release.
The once celebrated actor is said to have been a poor casting choice for his titular role as Richard in The Professor. Yet, who better to tackle the last days of a terminally ill English professor who tries to reinvent himself through reckless abandon and hedonistic soul-searching than Depp in his current state of affairs?
The Professor has the kind of concept that could have just as easily played as a TV series in the vein of Breaking Bad. As a film, it’s been accurately described as “American Beauty meets Dead Poet’s Society“. Yet, it’s a mistake to think of this film as a drama because The Professor is actually an indelicate and wry dark comedy drama. Having played The Libertine, Depp knows a thing or too about caving into desires and what better time to live large than when given the bad news from your doctor. Everyone’s days are numbered but the finality of knowing the ballpark number tends to jumpstart people into doing what they always wanted to do all along.
Depp’s ambitious casting is more in line with Robin Williams in World’s Greatest Dad who’s able to lean into comedy and drama quite effortlessly. While a bit of a gamble much like his character, Depp has nothing to lose and delivers an offbeat balancing act of an inside joke that reminds you its him whilst finally acknowledging his age and fragility.
“I shall henceforth be known as Johnny Dip.”
Ron Livingston’s very presence is often a signal that there are satirical comedy vibrations at play with his screen presence inextricably linked to Mike Judge’s cult comedy classic Office Space. The cast sprawls with Rosemarie DeWit, Danny Huston, Odessa Young and Zoey Deutch there to give Depp’s performance texture with him pushing off each of them in some memorable scenes. It’s fun to see Depp going devil-may-care cavalier and rare to see Huston’s Jack Nicholson mania softening into a pulpy mush.
The Professor‘s screenplay is flippant and the “are you serious?” undertone of the film reinforces its deadpan comedy. Composed of many playful scenes from a series of dysfunctional family turning points around the dining table to an unconventional support group session, writer-director Wayne Roberts creates an absurd, awkward and surprising mix of comedy and drama that keeps you guessing. Swaying from ribald to heartfelt, there’s rarely a dull moment as Richard says goodbye in signature fashion.
Trying to leave a legacy to his most devoted English students, going out in an apathetic blaze of glory and taking potshots at his would-be enemies in a final flourish of ecstasy, it’s an entertaining jaunt. It’s not in the same league as its likely inspirations, wielding a double-edged tone that adds as much as it subtracts. The underlying message of being true to oneself is important, something that carries significance in spite of the hedonistic endeavours.
The Professor may have worked better as a short form TV series, but does manage to keep things interesting enough for fans of any of the aforementioned films. Your enjoyment of The Professor will be tainted by Depp’s offscreen notoriety but as a black comedy drama there’s some empathy in knowing his character’s been given his last warning. The resolution is a bit of a predictable cop out, which undermines some of the foundational work but echoes the overriding sentiment.
The bottom line: Entertaining