WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
After receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, English professor, Richard, decides to make the most of what little time he has left on Earth by indulging in whatever he wants, consequences be damned. What impact, though, does Richard’s new attitude towards life have on his students, his colleagues, his best friend, his wife and his teenage daughter who have all come to accept him as the meek, mild-mannered professor who was as dependable as he was boring?
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
After torching much of his reputation following personal scandals and enough truly dire, out-of-control sub-Jack-Sparrow performances to sink even the greatest acting careers, Richard Says Goodbye (or, as it is known in most territories, the Professor) feels like a final, desperate effort by the once great actor to reclaim some of his lost dignity, if not acclaim. And fair play to him. He is clearly trying his best to actually act here. It’s just a pity that the film is such a dud and that, sadly, he has gotten so used to playing the Johnny Depp caricature that he seems simply unable to recapture any of the old magic that he brought to films like Ed Wood and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
If the film’s synopsis sounds at all mawkish, the film itself is just so much worse. It’s not that it’s completely awful – a fine supporting cast does the best with what they’re given, at the very least – it’s just so hopelessly hokey, so unabashed in its willingness to jump into bed with every cliché it crosses paths with, that it ends up as something of an embarrassment. Take Dead Poets Society, remove the energising presence of Robin Williams and add in more lame "fatal disease movie" clichés than you know what to do with and you end up with something not at all unlike Richard Says Goodbye.
Now, sure, it’s perfectly possible to give both Depp and the film’s writer/ director, Wayne Roberts (whose only other film to date is called... wait for it... Katie Says Goodbye!) the benefit of the doubt because no film this earnestly crap could be the product of anything but the best of intentions. Richard Says Goodbye honestly comes across as if it is blissfully unaware of just how maudlin, corny and lazy it is, and, despite it all, there is at least some charm in that. Not enough to make it genuinely worth seeing, of course, but enough to make it something of a curio as a film that should be the very definition of cynical but instead plays as completely guileless.
There are some joys to be had in Danny Huston taking a break from all his more villainous roles (don’t worry, he’s back to his old tricks this week in Stan & Ollie) and playing Richard’s super likeable best friend who seems to be taking Richard’s illness a lot worse than Richard himself is but the film’s not actually about him, unfortunately, so there’s only so much heavy lifting he can do. Zoey Deutch also comes out reasonably unscathed as she brings plenty of charm to her barely-there character, but she desperately needs to find some projects worthy of her talent and obvious charisma.
If you have ever seen any film of this sort before, you no doubt know all of the beats Richard Says Goodbye hits long, long before it actually gets to them but if there is one thing that does actually surprise it is that for a film that is ostensibly supposed to be all about a long-repressed, comfortably middle-class professor throwing away all his ambitions and embracing a life of frank honesty, reckless debauchery and unapologetic joie de vivre, it’s astonishingly well-behaved.
Depp is completely lost here as years of working in a single-mode has made him unable to modulate his performance, so he plays Richard with a constant sense of wry detachment that works great when he is telling his wife that he knows she’s been cheating on him, but he doesn’t care and plans on doing the same to her but is rather less effective when trying to depict someone spiralling out of control. This from the guy who once played Hunter S Thompson. Twice.
It’s not just Depp, though: everything about the film is way too polite and anaemic to hope to do justice to the more decadent aspects of its premise. This occasionally works too, as in the case when a somewhat bewildered Richard tries his, um, hand at a same-sex sexual encounter but mostly the whole thing feels like a portrayal of sex, drugs and rock and roll but without any actual sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s R or 16-rated, so it’s not exactly completely coy; it’s just hopelessly bloodless.
Oddly, both Depp and Roberts seem much more at home when the film turns towards saccharine -drenched cliché and even the (very) occasional bit of actual humanity that is most evident in his interactions with his daughter – who delays his announcement of his impending doom with her own coming out as a lesbian – and the characters played by the afore-mentioned Deutch and Huston. Sure, not a minute of it rings true and not a single character actually acts in any way like an actual human being would act in the same circumstances (those final fifteen minutes... holy hell) but at least it doesn’t come across like a middle-of-the-road nice guy trying his best to act “edgy”.
Though, even as I say that this is – as you may have noticed long before I did – pretty reflective of Richard himself. Does that mean that the film is really a much smarter, more incisive portrayal of a meek college professor trying to go off the deep end? I mean, maybe. Though, considering just how clumsy and inept everything else is about Richard Says Goodbye, that seems like a step too far. Give it the benefit of the doubt that its intentions are noble, sure, but that it’s actually smart and subversive? Nah, it can’t be. Can it?