For some reason, 2019 seems to be the year of actors stepping into the director’s chair. Whether it is on limited circuits like Idris Elba’s “Yardie,” on streaming services like Amy Poehler’s “Wine Country,” or breaking out into the mainstream like Olivia Wilde’s delightful “Booksmart,” we are starting to witness an unusual spike in opportunities for artists to branch out en masse to such a degree. Naturally, one of those artists happened to be veteran character actor Greg Kinnear (“Little Men”), who at long last has delivered his directorial debut with Phil, a light, slightly dark comedy that, while not entirely innovative, manages to charm just enough.
Kinnear directs himself as the titular character, a lonely dentist whose life has hit a roadblock. Separated from his wife and at arms’ length with his daughter, he finds solace when an joyous and intellectual patient Michael (Bradley Whitford, “Get Out”) inspires a brief ray of positivity in his life. That positivity shatters once Phil discovers Michael has soon after committed suicide, and Phil inadvertently finds himself infiltrating Michael’s life in order to find more out about the man.
Phil is a solid conduit for Kinnear’s innate likability. As a character, he is neither the smartest, nor the most interesting of protagonists out there. He performs a series of crimes throughout the film, yet Kinnear successfully offsets these acts by making a strong case for the audience to relate to him. With Whitford’s instinctive charisma acting as a foil from the get-go, Kinnear sets the stage with Michael in a way that allows him to stay an alluring figure even after his character’s exit.
Assuming the identity of a longtime friend from Greece, Phil grows close with an assortment of supporting characters, led by Michael’s wife Alicia (Emily Mortimer, “Write When You Get Work”). Thankfully, the movie forgoes the trap of building up an overt romance between them, instead relying on the connectivity of both characters’ search for answers. Their chemistry works, but ultimately it feels unfulfilled. There’s a deeper layer to be explored between these two that gets overshadowed by continued antics of Phil trying to publicly pass as Greek, which unfortunately becomes the movie’s centerpiece comedic bit. As a result, supporting performances from Robert Forster (“What They Had”), Luke Wilson (“Berlin, I Love You”), and Taylor Schilling (“The Lucky One”) are reduced to near-cameos.
On its surface, Phil is amiable yet unchallenging, positing interesting thoughts but never committing to a stance on them. If anything, it is a reflection on our continued self-assurance that resolutions to unanswerable questions exist, but never fully realizes that idea on a dramatically emotional level. On the comedy side, it hits every narrative beat you’d expect of its “lying protagonist” type, but not without a few honest chuckles. It’s sure to garner smiles from the most casual of viewers and lays a promising foundation for Kinnear as a competent director, as it is clear he has a decent sense for comedy and works well directing other actors. Like the character he portrays, Kinnear has had a slight stumble, but it shouldn’t be too hard for him to regain his footing.