It’s not as if there’s ever a particularly good time for rose-tinted character studies of morally dubious men, but even with that caveat in place, “The Professor” hasn’t exactly picked its moment. At a time when unresolved abuse allegations against Johnny Depp have placed his star image in flux, watching him play a college lecturer whose terminal cancer diagnosis sends him into a tailspin of social, sexual and professional misbehavior is an unavoidably discomfiting experience, however much gonzo gusto he brings to the part. Given more favorable circumstances, however, Wayne Roberts’ second feature would still be an unpalatable proposition, with its iffy sexual politics and a comic tone caught awkwardly between nihilistic irony and dewy-eyed sentiment. Saban Films and DirecTV have already secured U.S. rights to the film, which had it world premiere at the Zurich Film Festival under its original title of “Richard Says Goodbye”; despite some theatrical play, it will primarily be saying hello to audiences on VOD.
“The plight of verklempt women is not what I need to hear about right now,” snarls middle-aged English literature professor Richard (Depp) to one of his feminist students early on in the film. The line seems almost an in-joke, alluding to Roberts’ 2016 debut “Katie Says Goodbye,” in which female suffering was piled high on Olivia Cooke’s naive protagonist; though its narrative is unrelated, the previous title suggested a scales-leveling companion piece. Richard himself would certainly be pleased enough with the film, in which male crisis is very much the order of the day. Yet the character’s misogyny seems to have bled into the screenplay: Women, be they loveless middle-aged shrews or guileless ingenues, exist here solely to prompt and inspire our downtrodden hero’s cathartic disobedience.
There’s something here of Alan Ball’s acidic script for “American Beauty,” to which Roberts’ film often seems to play as naked homage, right down to the visual framing of certain suburban tableaux: It’s hard not to spot the similarities between the films’ airless showdowns at the family dinner table, or their legs-against-the-motel-headboard displays of extramarital coupling. Sam Mendes’ 1999 Oscar-winner may have lost some of its fashionability, but the trickiness of its tonal balancing act is underlined wherever “The Professor” flat-footedly stumbles.
Both films examine their protagonists’ me-first midlife reinvention under the weight of a looming death sentence; the difference here is that Richard, given months to live by a doctor in the bluntly cut opening scene, knows he’s about to die. Initially responding to the news with a series of dazed, monosyllabic expletives, he keeps his fate secret from all but his best friend (Danny Huston), though a surge of nothing-to-lose spirit lends renewed vigor to an ongoing war of words with his icy, unfaithful sculptress wife (Rosemarie DeWitt, battling a particularly thankless part).
She happens to be sleeping with his detested boss Henry (Ron Livingston), giving Richard a sliver of moral high ground that he ironically parlays into a complete abandonment of professional ethics on campus. Feeling at once untouchable and all-too-imminently mortal, he freely insults his students, drinks and smokes dope with the few who bemusedly remain, and even, in one bewilderingly ill-advised, out-of-nowhere scene, accepts oral sex in his office from one young male admirer.
As “seize the day” efforts go, it’s on the queasy end of the spectrum, yet the film consistently places Richard’s toxic rebellion in a heroic light, counterbalancing each beyond-the-pale provocation with a verbal flurry of rogueish but supposedly sage truth-telling: “Stay away from anyone who has even the slightest whiff of intentional conception,” he instructs his students, in the name of living spontaneously and with abandon. As they warm to his wackiness, there’s even an inkling of mutual attraction with Claire (the ever-winning but ill-served Zoey Deutch), the brightest spark in his class, in an arc of the script that feels oddly curtailed, albeit mercifully so — by this point, “The Professor” has romanticized macho male dysfunction quite enough.
Depp’s peculiar performance is at once the film’s most galvanizing and most disruptive element. Notwithstanding flashes of crazed comic bravado in his drawling delivery, he’s far from credibly cast as a suburban academic and long-repressed family man. (Not that the film’s understanding of English literary study, which doesn’t extend past a gung-ho celebration of “Moby Dick,” gives him much to draw on.) If Richard is a schmuck who’s only recently decided to live life on his own weird terms, Depp’s louche, spaced-out mannerisms make it all but impossible to imagine a previous, more rule-bound version.
Nothing else in the film, however, particularly follows his lead: From its rigid, symmetry-inclined compositions to its heavily worked one-liners, this is cautious, stifling filmmaking in thrall to a reckless, retrograde man, who does little in the course of 90 minutes to merit great fascination or pathos. By the time our nominal hero does indeed bid his audience adieu, his time feels up in more ways than one.