Phil: Routine Check-Up, by Sarah Brinks
Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” This is the central theme of Greg Kinnear’s directorial debut, Phil. The film doesn’t break any new ground but it is sweet and asks some interesting questions about how we live our lives in comparison to others. The film begins with Phil stopping his car on a crowded bridge and getting on the edge to jump. He imagines himself hitting the water, but even after someone filming him with their phone says he can be famous on YouTube, Phil decides not to. He returns to his unhappy life as a mediocre father, a divorcee, and bored dentist. Then one day Michael Fisk (Bradley Whitford) walks into his office. During the least believable dental inspection ever, Michael tells Phil about adventures he had in Greece when he was younger, about his successful daughter and beautiful wife, and how a book he wrote was selling successfully. Later Phil sees Michael out with his family and starts following him around. One day he follows Michael into the woods to find that he has hung himself. Unable to grasp how someone like Michael would want to end his life, through a series of events Phil pretends to be Michael’s friend from Greece named Spiros. Phil begins to remodel Michael’s bathroom and investigate Michael’s life.
Actors turned directors can result in a grab-bag of success. Sometimes you get bad movies like William Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or sometimes you get something wonderful like Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do or Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent. Phil doesn’t break any new ground or stand out as a notable first directorial effort but it also doesn’t feel like a first-time effort either. Kinnear tells a straightforward story with a straightforward style that works.
Admittedly it is a little hard to feel bad for Phil. All in all, this is another story about a sad, middle-aged white man whose life didn’t turn out the way he had hoped. Not to be dismissive of anyone’s pain but it is well-tread ground. Early in the film Phil is talking to his brother (played by Jay Duplass) about how it feels like, in this life, there are people who get rained on or people who get a beautiful rose garden. When he meets Michael, he seems like he has a beautiful garden. On Phil’s hunt to understand why Michael would throw all that away, he learns how to live his life again and finds a sense of happiness.
One thing that drives me crazy in movies is when characters abandon their day jobs to go on adventures or hunt down clues or whatever and it has no consequences at all. Phil doesn’t make that mistake. We see Phil walk away from his dental practice for nearly a month and it results in his patients leaving and his dental assistant quitting. He also has to work at selling the lie he told about being from Greece. We see Phil learning how to speak with a Greek accent from YouTube, listening to Greek music to learn the words, and also researching how to renovate a bathroom. He is not a natural at any of it, so it takes some practice.
The performances in the film are strong. Whitford swoops into the film and shakes things up. He is memorable and charming in a way that makes you understand why Phil is fascinated by him. Emily Mortimer plays Michael’s wife, Alicia. Mortimer is always a welcome presence on screen. While she does seem a little gullible, grief can make you a little crazy so her acceptance of a stranger that she thinks was her husband’s friend makes sense in a roundabout way. Kurt Fuller plays the dean of the college where Michael taught and he brings a suspicious, dangerous energy to the film. He is one of the few people who doesn’t immediately buy Phil’s lie about being Spiros. Kinnear does a nice job transforming Phil from sad sack to man who finds a way to be happy again. I wouldn’t consider this one of his strongest performances but he brings a good energy to the film.
Phil is not a challenging film but it is funny and often sweet. The film reminds us that everybody has struggles no matter what other people’s lives look like from the outside but we get to choose what we do with our own lives. Sometimes it just takes a minor felony to snap you out of your funk.