Death sucks. Everyone knows this hard truth, but we have a tendency to keep death at arm’s length until someone close passes on. Once someone close to you dies, the grief comes in waves and their absence seems both sudden and unbearable. You celebrate their life, cherish the memories, and yet still live life with a hole. I’ll be honest, death has come closer to home than ever before for me in 2019. A few loved ones have passed on, and I find myself continuing to process the grief while wrestling with my own mortality. Most significantly, my graduate school mentor passed in January. Don Small was an eager & accomplished scientist, an incredible mentor, and even dearer friend. One of my most special memories will be the efforts he made to fly to Chicago and attend my wedding. He later joked that he thought it was a dry wedding until he saw people fetching drinks from a silo around back–thus making it a truly Protestant wedding. A movie blog is a strange way to honor him, and it only represents a small token of appreciation compared to the ways his legacy lives on in my personal life and scientific career.
As fate would have it, Greg Kinnear has wrestled with the suicide of close friends and thought about directing a movie. Recently, these streams joined when he was presented with a special script by Stephen Mazur. As Greg says, “[Stephen] had a way…of dealing with the subject matter of suicide, which had affected me and my life through some people that were close to me, and I found the script had a strangely life-affirming quality to it.” In the same NPR interview, Greg recognizes that suicide sidelines those left behind as the nagging question of why? never leaves. These experiences, and the urgency of acknowledging that suicide is a growing epidemic in our country, ultimately motivated Greg to direct and star in Phil.
The movie has three acts, with the opening and closing acts assuming more serious tones and the middle act providing comic relief. Greg’s best performances are in black comedies and I believe it is his favorite genre. As such, it is not surprising that Phil‘s middle act leans into black comedy.
In the movie’s first act, Greg is a dentist named Phil with phailing prospects. He is one-year divorced, his daughter strongly prefers her mother, and his nightly routine is watching Jeopardy! alone in his disorganized apartment. In despair, Greg drives to a bridge where he plans to jump. Teenagers stop to film him so they can share it on YouTube, and he decides not to jump.
Back in his dental office, Greg treats a new patient who is full of life. Bradley Whitford is a tenured philosophy professor who recently published a book on Socrates, and is happily married with a daughter about to attend Dartmouth. In other words, Bradley’s family is the happy foil to Greg’s broken one. Bradley boasts about a long-ago trip he made to Greece and a lifelong friend named Spiros that he met there. To find out what makes Bradley so happy, Greg starts stalking him. One afternoon, Greg follows Bradley into the woods where he discovers that Bradley has hung himself. Spooked, Greg flees the scene with Bradley’s shoes.
Greg is deeply puzzled as to why a happy man who has it all would choose to end his own life. He gets drunk and falls asleep at Bradley’s grave. The next morning, Bradley’s widow (Emily Mortimer) finds him there and demands to know who he is. Cornered, Greg claims he is Spiros–Bradley’s friend from Greece.
In the movie’s second act, Greg assumes the role of Spiros and agrees to help finish a project Bradley recently started: remodeling the bathroom. Greg-as-Spiros can get close to Emily while searching the house for clues behind Bradley’s suicide. To fully assume this identity, Greg ghosts his dental practice and basically the rest of his actual life. The problem is, Greg knows nothing about Greece or home repair. Thus enters the comedy of Greg learning to speak Greek while making a mess of Emily’s bathroom.
Greg’s assumed identity is tenuous, as he comes perilously close to being exposed. First, he meets Bradley’s dad who knew the real-life Spiros. Later, he is confronted by Bradley’s department chair who tests Greg by speaking fluid Greek. Dodging exposure, Greg finds evidence as to why Bradley committed suicide–all of which is subsequently disproved. (The theme that things are not what they seem runs throughout the movie). Greg discovers that Bradley was reading about cancer, but later finds out it was to deal with his father’s illness. Then Greg finds incriminating pictures of Bradley with a female colleague and jewelry he designed for her, suggesting an affair. This suspicion lasts a while, until Emily herself kills it.
In the movie’s final act, Greg is exposed. In the movie’s most powerful scene, Emily sobs in her newly built shower as tile starts to fall from the wall. As she realizes Greg’s not a Greek handyman, the police identify Greg on video stalking Bradley. Emily doesn’t press charges, but files a restraining order and lawsuit against Greg.
Greg once again heads to the bridge to kill himself. He decides he should fight for a happy life, right as he trips over the edge. Despite the fall, Greg survives and starts repairing his relationship with his daughter. Greg remembers that he took Bradley’s shoes, and finds a suicide note in them. Opting not to read it, he delivers it to Emily. He concludes that there is no rhyme or reason to life & death–and that is ok. As the movie ends, Greg recites the overplayed Socrates quote, “All I know, is that I know nothing.”
I (along with many reviews) found this ending to be extremely disappointing. The resolution that life is unknowable and should be cherished “just because” fits better with a sitcom than an introspective movie. This conclusion also undermines the very mystery of life it seeks to uphold. Despite this final flop, I do think Phil did many things right. Just as in many real-life instances, the viewer never learns why Bradley committed suicide, and the movie underscores how this exacerbates grief. In particular, Emily Mortimer was the glue that held Phil together. The consistency and depths of her grief gave suicide the treatment that Greg’s wildly different character changes could not. Finally, the movie deviates from a fully sitcom ending in that Emily and Greg do not end up together. A final scene toys with the viewer’s subconscious belief that they will, only to remind us that what Greg did is super wrong and real life is not like that.
Go Big or Go Greg
One review of Phil starts, “Greg Kinnear is a likeable actor who gravitates towards playing feckless and unlikeable people.” I admit both that I wish I wrote this statement and that it’s true. For example, Greg excelled as a narcissistic, two-timing ghosts that haunts a dentist in Ghost Town. Here, Greg’s Phil stands on the other side of the dental chair and is intended to be a sympathetic character. As a man acquainted with sorrow, he spends most of the movie mutely meandering and boorishly bumbling as he tries to solve Bradley’s suicide and find meaning for his life. This is Kinnear at his ok-est, complete with lots of blank expressions and melancholic moments.
However, Greg excels at both situational comedy and improvisation and these save his performance here. Greg has some genuinely delightful moments as he’s forced to maintain his Spiros-the-handyman identity. For instance, he dines at a Greek restaurant with Emily and must join in a traditional Greek line dance. Similarly, when Bradley’s colleague who speaks fluent Greek tests Greg, Greg responds by talking over him with a word vomit of meaningless Greek phrases. In general, every time Greg enunciates Greek words of his character’s last name (Papalapadopoulos), I couldn’t help but laugh. But my favorite Greg moment came early, when he follows Bradley into the woods. As he walks, he awkwardly practices what he will say to Bradley to explain why he is there (to make himself not look like a stalker). It’s a small moment, but it plays as Greg improvising off-script to bring some levity before the dark reveal (i.e, Bradley hanged himself).
Finally, Greg goes big as a first-time director. He reunites with composer Rolfe Kent (from Nurse Betty) and cinematographer John Bailey (from As Good As It Gets) to go for several big moments backed by a grandiose score. These big moments are mostly dream sequences, but the biggest moment is right after Greg trips off the bridge near the end of the movie. The camera pans back to show Greg illuminated as if by spotlight in the water as he struggles for his life–while the big-band music swells. Since most of Greg-as-Phil’s reflections on death remain small-minded, these big moments fail to land. Where Greg and his team get it right are in the smaller moments (i.e., Emily sobbing in the shower highlighted above) and in directing the secondary cast. Emily shines, but so does much of the cast–including April Cameron as Greg’s secretary and Jay Duplass as Greg’s brother. For Greg, it’s a worthy first-time directing effort but there is definitely room for improvement.
- Death sucks. As I’ve grieved over personal loss, Greg’s own concerns about suicide motivated him to direct his first movie, Phil.
- Phil follows a depressed dentist as he assumes the identity of a Greek handyman to find reasons for the suicide of a happy family man.
- Greg is enjoyable but not great in the title role, while Emily Mortimer’s exceptional turn as the grieving widow saves the movie and some of its heavier themes.
- Greg-as-director is also good-but-not-great. He excels in directing smaller moments with a solid supporting cast, but fails in his attempts at cinematic grandiosity.
- Next-up: Feast of Love, where Greg gets dumped over and over and over again.
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