Phil is the directorial debut of Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets, Little Miss Sunshine), and it isn’t what you would expect. The film is about a depressed dentist who, after one of his seemingly happy patients commits suicide, poses as one of his patient’s long-lost friends in an attempt to investigate his patient’s death and hopefully answer his own mid-life crisis.
There have been plenty of movies about a protagonist who poses as someone else and keeps up the charade, but Phil stands out because it is not a romance like most other films utilizing the trope. Instead, it is a mid-life crisis movie, and as such, even though it may not be entirely original, it still feels somewhat fresh and enjoyable. Additionally, the off-kilter premise is intriguing and unique.
The main reason that the film works so well is the dark sense of humor which writer Stephen Mazur (Liar Liar) infused into the script. Although the movie is certainly comedic, Mazur handles the more sensitive topics, like suicide and depression, with earnesty, meaning that the script never feels disrespectful. The best moments in the film are those in which we see the protagonist struggling to keep up the lies he has created, such as a scene in which he is asked to perform a Greek dance (obviously having no knowledge of the matter).
The character development also goes a long way in making the movie more enjoyable. It is easy to get drawn into the story when you like the characters. The protagonist Phil has an obvious arc, but it is a compelling one. The first twenty or so minutes give us a good introduction to the character and make us sympathize with his situation, particularly because of the relationship he has with his daughter.
Kinnear does an excellent job of playing the protagonist with subtlety and humanity. Although there is a portion towards the beginning of the film where you may be wondering whether or not this is going to end up being little more than a vanity project, that is fortunately not the case. Kinnear is entirely believable as the eponymous depressed dentist, absolutely nailing the emotional aspects of the story, but also able to do the physical comedy. It is evident that this script spoke to Kinnear and that is why he wanted to get involved.
The supporting cast in the film is pretty massive, even if they are significantly underused. As is the case with many movies named after their protagonist, Phil is very centric on its lead character. The only other character who gets a significant amount of screen time is Alicia, played by Emily Mortimer. Mortimer is great in the role, but the character should have had a much better arc. There are also quite a few fun bit parts who are used as obstacles in Phil’s journey, as played by Jay Duplass, Robert Forster, Taylor Schilling, Luke Wilson, and Bradley Whitford.
On a technical level, the film is mostly average. The cinematography, editing, and production design aren’t particularly ambitious, but they suffice in making sure that the comedic timing works. The only part of the execution that stands out as noteworthy is the soundtrack, which is fittingly infused with the sounds of Greek folk music throughout.
Phil stands out from most recent debuts of actor-turned-directors in that it is certainly not very flashy. However, Kinnear’s direction is competent and the performances are great, doing justice to the darkly witty script.
Phil hits theaters and VOD on July 5.