We are all immortal, until we’re not. From a very young age we’re taught to invest in the future, the promised land where we will enjoy the fruits of our labours. The Professor examines what happens when someone who has achieved the American Dream is forced to address their own mortality. Richard Brown (Johnny Depp) is a successful Professor of English Literature at a prestigious American college. His life appears charmed, an equally successful wife, well-adjusted daughter and a beautiful house. He has reached what most Americans would consider the ideal life. Until he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Depending on how one interprets his behaviour, he spends the remainder of the film either spiralling or embracing life to its fullest.
Crumbling reputation and lawsuits aside, it is refreshing to see Johnny Depp free from elaborate makeup and affected performances. The character of Richard is rather ordinary, his air of wisdom quickly gives way to an inner arsehole as he drinks, smokes, and screws his way to what he calls an “interesting life”. Depp gives an honest performance that allows us to sympathise with our protagonist. Yet one can’t help questioning whether his methods for dealing with his imminent death are truly justified. In other words, should we sympathise with a character who uses his illness as an excuse for damaging actions?
Credit must also be given to Rosemarie DeWitt whose dry, unapologetic Veronica is a wonderful foil to Richard’s brash arrogance. Neither character is quintessentially ‘good’ as they engage in all manner of vices. Yet their behaviour is framed as neither good nor bad, more a symptom of the lies we tell to convince ourselves we are making the best of life.
The Professor engages with as many aspects of life as the writer/director Wayne Roberts can shove into 100 minutes. From sexuality and drugs, to infidelity and obligation versus desire. Richard chooses to embrace life. An honest, desire fuelled, hedonistic version of life. As Richard’s indiscretions build it feels as though he is headed for some sort of catastrophe – surely Richard can’t get away with it? But he does. Not even his closest friend Peter (Danny Houston) can judge him because Peter doesn’t know how it feels to have your mortality thrust in your face. In addition, the dialogue between Claire (Zoey Deutch) and Richard sows the seeds for an affair that never materialised. Something that could have been the emotional heart of the film is tossed aside in favour of casual encounters where Richard dominates his sexual partners. There are no real consequences for his behaviour, no matter how many people it affects.
This film continually introduces new threads in the plot without resolving the one before. Veronica’s infidelity, Richard’s radical overhaul of his syllabus, his potential affair, their daughter’s coming out. These choices are probably intended to reflect the messiness of life, but they destabilise the story. No specific event is ever given enough attention to deeply affect the characters. Richard does not even tell his family about his illness until the third act of the film.
No two films deal with terminal illness in the exact same way. In many cases, the sick character finds romantic love to make their last days meaningful. In others, a patriarch runs about frantically working to right the wrongs they’ve caused their family. To Richard, and perhaps Wayne Roberts, the wrong he needs to fix is the choice to live his life the way society demands. Due to the promise of the future, the promise of freedom, and the shackles of modern living, he couldn’t fully embrace the beauty of life. Of following a path to the unknown. This is perhaps where the film is strongest. When it argues that life is more than a job, a house, a pension, a family. It argues that we have it all wrong. To live life to the fullest means to embrace every experience one can find, regardless of the consequences.
The high point of The Professor is Richard’s emotional farewell speech to his colleagues and Veronica. Where he talks about the gift of life and how it is our duty to live it as fully as possible. The speech is poetic and heartfelt, and almost redeems Richard. If he needs redemption, which depends entirely on one’s interpretation of the film. Is hedonism such a sin?
Roberts offers an intriguing take on the crisis of one’s mortality. Rather than spiral into depression, Richard chooses life. With all that it entails. It would be a heart wrenching, cautiously optimistic film if it could stick to one plot. Still, The Professor does contain one piece of lasting wisdom. Early on in the film, Richard tells his students, “In each and every moment we’re composing stories of our lives, let’s aim to make it a meaningful read… or at least an interesting one.” These words were a beautiful promise for a film that failed to meet the challenge.
The Professor is out on DVD and Digital on June 24th
by Mia Garfield
Mia Garfield has just finished a degree in Film at Falmouth University. She has just finished her first short ‘Sonder’, keep an eye out for it at festivals in the UK. A big lover of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Mythology, her taste is varied. Her favourite films include Howl’s Moving Castle, Memoirs of A Geisha, How to Train Your Dragon, and Big Hero 6. You can find her @miajulianna2864