'Phil': Film Review

Phil-Publicity still-H 2019
Courtesy of Quiver Distribution
Phony, whatever name you call it.

Greg Kinnear's directing debut finds him playing a despondent dentist who impersonates a dead man's friend.

Pretty much all philosophers agree that, when in pursuit of answers to life's great questions, telling lies is about the worst place you can start. But that doesn't stop the eponymous star of Phil, a thoroughly unconvincing comedy about a suicidal man, stymied by the question of happiness, who gets a second chance by impersonating someone he's never met. The kind of bad movie that makes you wonder, "How did so many good actors decide to take this job?," this one comes with an easy answer: First-time director Greg Kinnear presumably used a career's worth of goodwill to enlist co-stars Emily Mortimer, Luke Wilson and others. That still doesn't explain why Kinnear thought Stephen Mazur's witless script was worth making, but some questions should probably be left to the great thinkers.

Kinnear's Phil McGuire is a sad-sack dentist whose batteries are so depleted he can't even steal energy from those around him. How big a drag is he to be around? When sitting down for dinner with the daughter who lives with his ex-wife, he reminds the high-schooler to wash her hands. He chickens out on a suicide attempt in the film's first scene, and it won't be the last time. Between failed attempts, he obsesses over an idea most grown-ups realize is baloney: He's convinced that some rare humans really do have perfect lives, living in rose gardens that thrive despite never being rained on.

When a man who seems to fit this bill comes through his office one day (Bradley Whitford's Michael), Phil half-accidentally winds up stalking him. He sees Michael's beautiful, loving family; envies his success and poise; and tails him as he takes a solitary walk in the forest, where, in less time than it takes to say, "I don't believe a second of this," Michael drinks a bottle of wine, ties a noose, anchors it high in a tree and hangs himself.

Shocked at how such a seemingly contented man could do this, Phil continues snooping, going so far as to attend the wake and sneak into Michael's office while others offer condolences. Eventually, he's caught by Michael's wife Alicia (Mortimer). Fumbling to explain his presence, Phil claims to be Spyros, Michael's dear friend from when he studied in Greece 20 years ago. Trying to sell the absurd lie, he gives himself a crash course in Greek and combs YouTube for accent pointers; at least the effort gives him a reason to live. Soon, his attempts to console the grieving widow get him clumsily wrapped up in her life. In Phil's shoes, wouldn't you offer to single-handedly renovate Alicia's master bathroom, despite knowing nothing about plumbing or tilework? Of course you would. Stupid question.

The film aims to wring comedy from this and many other instances in which Phil couldn't possibly hope to keep his charade going. But his brushes with possible exposure rarely if ever generate comic anxiety; instead, they make one marvel at the gullibility and lack of follow-through shown by people who should see immediately that Spyros is an ersatz Zorba. Merely competent performances from talented thesps don't speak promisingly of Kinnear's directing potential, while the pic's plotting and dialogue explain why Mazur has spent the years since a co-writing credit on 1997's Liar Liar penning straight-to-video sequels for Without a Paddle and Jingle All the Way.

Production companies: Bron Studios, Single Cell, Imperative Entertainment
Distributor: Quiver Distribution
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Emily Mortimer, Bradley Whitford, Luke Wilson, Jay Duplass, Robert Forster, Megan Charpentier, April Cameron
Director: Greg Kinnear
Screenwriter: Stephen Mazur
Producers: Aaron L. Gilbert, Sandy Stern, Bradley Thomas
Executive producers: Jason Cloth, Ron McLeod, Andrew Pollack, Allan J. Stitt
Director of photography: John Bailey
Production designer: Tink
Costume designer: Lorraine Carson
Editor: David Rosenbloom
Composer: Rolfe Kent
Casting director: Mary Vernieu

Rated R, 101 minutes