Phil opens with a haggard-looking Greg Kinnear stopping his car in the middle of a bridge, before fumbling to the rails, where he stares into the abyss below. Although he envisions jumping off the edge and floating in the water below — as if suicide were more of a balm than a finality — he doesn’t have the nerve, so he resignedly retreats. This directorial debut by Kinnear sounds like heavy drama, but Phil is a somewhat engaging comedy about the need to escape our lives, at least for a while.
With social media at the height of its prowess and everyone peeking into each other’s digital worlds, this voyeuristic yet light-hearted look at discontent isn’t unfamiliar territory. Veteran actor Greg Kinnear’s star shone brightest in the ’90s and early 2000s with such films as As Good As It Gets and Little Miss Sunshine (personally, I loved his dark turn as sex-addicted Bob Crane in Auto Focus). Therefore, it’s not a shock that Phil feels reminiscent of those movies, which made Kinnear a household name at a time when studios seemingly released character-driven comedies on a weekly basis. Aw, simpler times.
Phil is miserable. A dentist with a private practice, he drifts into work, drills patients’ mouths while staring into space (one of the movie’s biggest laughs), then goes home to his empty apartment. One day, Michael Fisk (Bradley Whitford) shows up for a cleaning. A buoyant literary professor, Fisk regales Phil with stories about his youthful vacations in Greece where he met a childhood pal named Spiros. Enthralled, Phil is soon stalking Fisk. One day he follows him into the woods, where he discovers this inspired man hanging from a tree. Thrown by this existential wrench, a few days later Phil ends up drunk and passed out on Fisk’s grave, where he is caught by his widow, Alicia (Emily Mortimer). At a loss for words, Phil quickly says that he’s Spiros, Fisk’s old Greek friend. Phil is taken in by the Fisk family under the guise of Spiros, giving him the opportunity to become a different person and escape his own existence. Soon, he’s YouTubing Greek accents, and taking on the job of renovating Alicia’s unfinished bathroom. And he finally has purpose in his life.
Although Phil has moments as derivative as a Lifetime Christmas movie, I respect its unabashed spirit. It hits every mistaken-identity comic mark conceivable, and sometimes these scenarios are funny, other times just eye-rolling. Kinnear’s directing lacks a distinct style or panache, but he is able to balance comedy and drama with a veteran’s instinct that works more than it doesn’t. There’s a lot of sentiment here, but it rings true, even for a comedy that deals with suicide, which is no small feat.
Even with extremely schmaltzy material, the film is over all pretty enjoyable. Maybe we need more schmaltz in our world right now. Even comedies these days feel oddly angry and pessimistic. For all its faults, Phil brings us back to a time when farce in comedies wasn’t about farting or falling on your face, but simply losing our human connection to the world.