Greetings again from the darkness. Cancer comedies are few and far between, and that’s understandable since the often deadly disease brings with it so much suffering and sadness. Writer-Director Wayne Roberts pulls no punches. The opening scene finds a doctor breaking the dreaded diagnosis to a patient … lung cancer. The patient, a college professor named Richard, is told he has 6 months to live.
The cold opening has us questioning if this is truly a comedy – even though the opening scene professor-patient is played by Johnny Depp. The news hits him hard of course, and we can see his mind spinning as he works out his approach and acceptance. What follows are some quite awkward and uncomfortable scenes with both his class and his family – a wife Veronica (Rosemary DeWitt) and teenage daughter Olivia (Odessa Young). Both of the women in his life usurp is announcement with those of their own: Veronica is having an affair with the Chancellor of the college where Richard works, and Olivia discloses that she is a lesbian. The two dinner time announcements and Richard’s still held secret are integral to every scene that follows.
Six title chapters clue us in on each subsequent phase in Richard’s life, and the key is that he tosses conventions aside and tries to find meaning in life … all while facing his own mortality. On one hand, Richard does what a professor does – he teaches. His small group of students are privy to such insight into life as “it ends in death for everyone”. On the other hand, he experiments with drugs, alcohol, and sexual experiences, including a couple of episodes with students – something that should never happen.
Ron Livingston is perfectly cast as the somewhat slimy Chancellor who is sleeping with Richard’s wife, but it’s Zoey Deutch and Danny Huston whose characters generate a bit more substance in Richard’s life. Ms. Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson and a star in the making) plays Claire, a student who seems to quickly “get” what her professor is going through. And Mr. Huston gives one of his best performances in years as Richard’s long-time friend Peter who doesn’t want to accept the inevitable.
With all of the fantastical characters he has played (often masked in make-up and costumes), we sometimes forget what terrific dramatic acting ability Johnny Depp possesses when he’s engaged. For those who only know him as Captain Jack Sparrow (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies), or as Grindewald (the “Fantastic Beasts” films), or as the Mad Hatter, Tonto, or Willy Wonka, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with his turn here (or in BLACK MASS, FINDING NEVERLAND, or BLOW). Filmmaker Wayne Roberts offered up an excellent debut in 2017 with KATIE SAYS GOODBYE, and he follows that with this unusual look at mortality – including a “celebrate life” soliloquy.