“Publish or Perish is a light, dark comedy in the heart of academia that scores some points but fails to move to the head of the class.
Of all the kinds of horror out there, dark comedies are some of the hardest to pull off. The writing, directing, and acting all need to have just the right tone so that we feel for the characters, just as we are able to distance ourselves enough to laugh at them.
For every Ghostbusters, there are a dozen Ghostbusters 2s (not to mention High Spirits, The Frighteners, RIPD, and We Have a Ghost). It’s a blend of pathos and bathos that can be killed so easily by an actor who’s too serious, an editor used to cutting action, or even a marketing team used to dumbing down the wittier wisecracks.
Publish or Perish has much to offer and successfully avoids so many pitfalls that keep good dark comedies from firing on all cylinders.
As Jim Bowden, an English Lit professor obsessed with getting tenure, Timothy McCracken’s hangdog face brings to mind echoes of a first-season Walter White (Breaking Bad).
He’s a more effete everyman who tells the all-to-familiar tale of a man struggling for some stability, bushwhacking through arbitrary social mores, and threading delicate relationships that could so easily spell disaster as his tenure hangs in the balance.
He is the consummate ‘straight man’ as fate throws him every sort of reputation-destroying disaster, from a boss who hates him to a vindictive student to a wise-cracking corpse riding shotgun as he suffers through the months-long process of getting approved.
The film’s substance builds on Bowden’s anxiety as he deals with each disaster, but the movie ramps up to 11 when he accidentally runs over and kills a student from his class.
Writer/Director David Liban keeps his rudder firmly towards broad comedy and any tragedy at arm’s length.
The scenes of violence seem almost intentionally unbelievable, and dead students quickly come back post-mortem to mock and cajole our hapless hero.
At home, Jim is the sitcom father with his wisecracking wife and daughter, who generally orbit Jim with deadpan charm as he struggles with his wife’s boredom or his daughter’s nudity in an art film, calling her boyfriend “the pornographer” in a subplot that Bowden neatly folds into his master plan.
Anastasia Davidson is a standout as Jim’s wife, Allison, giving alternate shades of light and dark as a student’s salacious accusation hints at their marriage’s questionable origins.
Unfortunately, the relationships are where the movie loses its bite.
Jim Bowden’s obsession with his daughter’s partial nudity is played for laughs but commands an amount of focus that leaves us genuinely uncomfortable. Scenes that flesh out the female characters feel grafted on — like someone complained that the “horny secretary” trope was a bit too one-dimensional in this day and age, and we really ought to put some language in about body positivity if the daughter is going to be THAT nude.
Jim Bowden is monomaniacal, true.
But when we can’t see real emotion, a real thing Jim is risking, we lose that simmering anxiety that leaves you watching the credits with your nails chewed to bits.
The camera work was also underwhelming, feeling like nothing so much as “decently shot and poorly lit,” standard fare from a DP who just got a budget and isn’t interested in tone as much as shiny new cameras.
With the amount of chaos that Jim Bowden had to deal with, any choice for a visual aesthetic would be better than “competent,” and there were any number of chances to underscore ideas and emotions that seemed wasted.
In terms of comedy, Publish or Perish is more milk than dark chocolate, not really delving into the true darkness in Jim’s soul and relying on tension and anxiety to carry it through.
That said, if you like your murder a little more PG, Publish or Perish is a tight, tense little bundle of popcorny fun.