Whenever an actor steps behind the camera, one can’t help but wonder why they chose the material that they chose for their debut. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Bradley Cooper remaking A Star Is Born last year or Greg Kinnear this week with Phil. You just are inherently curious. It’s especially the case here, as Kinnear proves a capable filmmaker, though one in need of a stronger script. Yes, while Kinnear’s acting and directing here are solid, the writing (not his own, more on that later) isn’t up to snuff. The end result is a dramedy that is at times inane and at times moving, though unfortunately more so the former than the latter.
At the movie’s start, Dr. Phil Maguire (Kinnear) is a dentist on the verge of suicide. In fact, he’s planning to do it, but just sort of chickens out. Then, a colleague refers a patient over to him. He’s Michael Fisk (Bradley Whitford), a man who seems to have it all. A loving family, a happy outlook on life, a successful book that was just published. Michael is a good guy all around, friendly and easy to offer advice to Phil. Compelled to figure out how he has it all, Phil follows him around for a day, until he makes a shocking discovery. At the end of a drive, Michael leaves his car, goes into the woods, and hangs himself. If the man who had it all offed himself, what hope does Phil have? Needing to figure out why he did it, Phil begins poking around, accidentally ingratiating himself into Michael’s family, notably his widow Alicia (Emily Mortimer), posing as a Greek friend of her late husband. In short order, she’s using him as a handyman, an excuse for him to periodically rifle through things and learn more about the man. As he tries to figure out the truth, he grows closer to Alicia, leading to a complication you’ll see coming a mile away. Kinnear directs a script by Stephen Mazur, with music by Rolfe Kent and cinematography from current Academy President John Bailey. Rounding out the cast are an impressive bunch that includes Megan Charpentier, Sarah Dugdale, Jay Duplass, Robert Forster, Taylor Schilling, and Luke Wilson.
If not for Stephen Mazur’s script dropping the ball, this might have been just worthy of a mild recommendation. Unfortunately, there’s just one too many contrivances and dumb things that he has his characters do. Other than that, it’s smoother sailing. Mainly, it’s the acting that gets this close to that point of a thumbs up. Not just Greg Kinnear in the lead role, but the supporting turns by Jay Duplass, Robert Forster, Emily Mortimer, Bradley Whitford, and Luke Wilson as well. They’re too good at their jobs to let any shortcomings on the writing end sabotage their performances. One can argue that Forster and Whitford especially are under used, but they certainly make the most of the scenes that they’re in.
Phil plays it too safe. Kinnear seemingly wants to present an affable character, more so than tell a fully engaging story. There are hints of a compelling plot, though he weaves in and out of it, never getting you the details you desire. Much of that falls on Mazur, but it does make you wonder why this screenplay attracted him in the first place. His direction is smooth enough, while his performance is standard issue Kinnear high quality, but what set this apart in his mind? That never comes across on the screen with any consistency, ultimately dooming the project to upper level mediocrity.
Tomorrow, fans of Greg Kinnear can see his first directorial outing when Phil opens up. Kinnear has a future behind the camera if he wants it, that much is impossible to argue. It’s just a shame that the final product here is as paper thin as it ends up being. I can’t see anyone hating this film, though I do think it’s fairly hard for anyone to fall in love with it. The movie just toes the middle, from start to finish. If you’re curious about Kinnear’s directing chops, this isn’t a bad example of what he can put forward. Just keep your expectations very much in check…
Phil is in theaters this weekend.