“The road to tenure can be deadly.” So says the tagline for writer-director David Liban’s dark comedy Publish Or Perish. The film follows English literature professor Jim Bowden (Timothy McCracken), who’s excited to start on the tenure track at his university. Unfortunately for him, the school’s dean, Richard Crawley (James Shanklin), believes tenure is an antiquated concept and tells him not to focus on it. Even more frustrating is that Dean Crawley and Professor Bowden just don’t see eye to eye, punctuated by their differing senses of humor.
At home, the professor’s life seems idyllic. His loving wife, Allison (Anastasia Davidson), supports him, and he has a decent relationship with his daughter, Amy (Bonnie Utter). Though the father disapproves of her boyfriend, Alex (Nick James), who creates “pornography” — an art film in which Amy appears nude. Jim begins to feel the pressure even more as the deadline to turn in his dossier to be considered for tenure looms.
The day everything is due comes, and a distracted Professor Bowden backs his car into a student named Derek (Caleb Liban). This accident kills the young man, and in a panic, considering there are no witnesses, he shoves the body into his car. He then delivers the dossier to an impatient board, which includes the dean. Unsure of his next move, Jim buys a shovel and buries Derek off an old, winding country road. Of course, he’ll be noticeably missing, meaning the cops come knocking, asking about Derek.
“…Professor Bowden backs his car into a student…This accident kills the young man…”
From here, Publish Or Perish tracks a few subplots. The first involves Professor Bowden discovering a secret about Dean Crawley, causing even more of a rift in their relationship. The second sees Mia (Caitlyn Miller) falsely accuse Professor Bowden of sexual misconduct because he wouldn’t give her an extension on a paper. The last one involves Jim’s distaste for Alex and how he uses it to his own advantage. Of these, the Mia stuff feels largely forced until she winds up accidentally dead as well, which sends even further ripples throughout the lead’s life.
Throughout the hour and 40-minute runtime, Liban showcases a strong sense of tone. The offbeat and dark humor is shown early on when the professor and the dean each crack wise about the other’s chosen profession. Neither one laugh at what was side, but the audience does, as the tension arising over tenure of all things is impossibly ludicrous. This absurdity remains heightened as each ridiculous turn piles atop another.
Keeping all this from entering cartoon territory is the cast. McCracken makes everything seem grounded, even when it is patently not. Caleb Liban, whose character shows up as a talking hallucination at times, continues to build a robust resume, starting with his excellent performance in A Feral World. He steals his scenes with a deadpan delivery. Utter plays the more devastating and creepy moments with vulnerability. Shanklin’s sheer desperation as the dead loses control is keenly felt and genuinely hilarious.
Publish Or Perish is fiendishly clever and wickedly amusing. David Liban continues his strong track of impressive indie features. The screenplay balances one crazy moment after another with characters viewers can root for. The cast all deliver on the razor-sharp meanness and patently absurd setup with straight-faced performances that make it much funnier.
"…fiendishly clever and wickedly amusing."