Oscar-nominated actor Greg Kinnear makes his directorial debut with the new film Phil, and also stars in the lead role as the eponymous character. Phil McGuire is a fairly successful dentist who runs his own practice, yet struggles with deep depression and all of its accompanying horrendous aspects. He is desperately searching for some form of purpose in life and for a place in the world. He and his wife, Rosemary (Nicole Oliver), are divorced, and their teenage daughter, Molly (Megan Charpentier), much prefers to spend time with her mother. Phil McGuire is in a dark place mentally and emotionally and his conflicted family life only deepens this despair. There appears to be little to provide any spark of hope or happiness in his life. However, when the remarkably likeable, upbeat, and positive-thinking Michael Fisk (Bradley Whitford) appears in McGuire’s dentist’s office for a routine checkup one day, McGuire’s curiosity is instantly ignited. Fisk is a man with supposed unbridled optimism, abounding intelligence, and an unparalleled zeal for life. What is the secret to this man’s joy? McGuire is determined to solve this riddle so that he might find direction in his own life.
The ensuing quirky adventure finds McGuire following Fisk around in his daily activities, studying his every move. There is a spark of charisma and energy in this man the likes of which McGuire has never seen. At this point in the narrative, the audience feels a respectable emotional attachment to both characters. They admire Fisk’s joy and bliss while also hoping that McGuire finds contentment and peace. McGuire’s stalking of Fisk is an amusing venture to witness and viewers hope that this output of energy leads to something worthwhile for McGuire. Thus, the ensuing tragic event has a deeply disturbing impact. On a lonely back road, McGuire notices Fisk pulling his car over and entering the surrounding woods on foot. What could possibly be the meaning of this? Naturally, curiosity gets the better of McGuire, and he makes the ill-advised decision to follow Fisk into the woods. This might appear as an incredibly peculiar choice for McGuire to make, but it is still consistent with his character up to this point in the narrative, however naïve it is in reality. Yet, McGuire’s grisly discovery leads him to immediately regret his actions. Inexplicably, unfathomably, and horrifically, McGuire finds that Fisk has committed suicide. Thus ensues the development of a completely new set of questions for McGuire. How could this have happened to such a seemingly jubilant individual? Was this man’s life not tied neatly together as it had all seemed? These ponderings lead McGuire on a journey in the exact opposite direction compared to his initial exploits. Rather than seeking out clarity for the meaning of life, McGuire finds himself on a morbid path, searching for the purpose of this man’s death.
Anytime a story deals with suicide, the filmmakers must proceed with a certain level of caution. This is one of the most sensitive subjects imaginable. To fold this intense topic into a drama with elements of dark comedy is an even greater storytelling challenge. Unfortunately, this film does not quite find this delicate balance. The suicide of Fisk is the inciting incident that sets the pace for the rest of the story, and, if given some time to breathe, this event’s emotional impact could have been much more efficiently handled. Yet, rather than acting both as a building block in the poignant foundation of the narrative, as well as a stepping stone for McGuire’s character, the former felt neglected and overlooked, like it was incorporated more as a plot device to progress the unorthodox actions and idiosyncrasies of the main protagonist. The calamity of Fisk’s death was not fleshed out as deeply as it could have been. Some viewers may even be offended by the lack of dexterity and sensitivity with the subject of suicide. While this was likely not the intention of Kinnear in his directorial duties, the potentiality of this negative impact is undeniable. Even the core story’s question revolving around the cause of Fisk’s suicide seems dated and uncharacteristic for the current day and age. At this point in our society, it is mostly common knowledge that mental illness and all of its grievous ramifications do not discriminate across any classification. How people look and act on the outside is not always a true representation of their innermost selves. Across all races, genders, religions, sexual orientations, and social classes, the battle against depression looks remarkably similar. While a valid point could be made that not everybody in our world is aware of this truth, a larger portion of the population are indeed aware of this reality now compared to years ago. Essentially, the basic theme of this narrative, despite its positive intentions, only reaches a select group of audience members for the first time. Most viewers will not learn anything new about the horrors of mental illness, and how they can be mitigated. Of course, with every single person who has their eyes opened to these matters, a step forward is made in our culture. Nevertheless, the filmmakers seemingly worked too hard to convey a well-known message, in a slightly suspect manner.
Still, however unbalanced the tonal shifts of the story may be, the lead actors perform well in their respective roles. Kinnear definitely stands out above the rest, considering his position as the main protagonist. From his deep sorrow and anguish, to the conflicting pain and love he feels with his fractured familial life, to his bizarre quirks and odd ticks, Kinnear captures McGuire’s traits convincingly and with great authority. Additionally, the supporting performance from Emily Mortimer as Alicia Fisk, the widow of Michael Fisk, is adequately layered and nuanced. She handles the broad array of emotions expected from a character in this situation with respectable deftness and proficiency. She has solid command in this role as a woman whose world has been shaken abruptly and dreadfully. This pair of notable performances lessen the blow of some of the adverse effects of the narrative inconsistencies.
Other technical elements, like the cinematography (John Bailey), editing (David Rosenbloom), and musical score (Rolfe Kent), add some effectiveness to the film as a whole, with mixed results. Each of these aspects do their part in complementing the tones and themes of each scene, even as the tonal shifts struggle to find their footing. Some individual scenes are very powerful and moving standing on their own, having the desired impact and landing their punches. Yet, as a cohesive narrative, these puzzle pieces do not always fit together. The sudden transitions from a very dark, somber, and grim aura, to one of almost whimsy, simply does not blend smoothly. Part of the blame for these issues lands on the shoulders of the screenwriter, and other shares of the load are carried by the director. One thing for certain is that this lack of clarity and articulation subtracted from the final product.
The genre of dark comedy is unquestionably a precarious slope to navigate, and it is admirable that Kinnear would undertake such an endeavor in his directorial debut. The messages and ideas he had in mind were constructive and affirmative, albeit not quite fit for this day and age. While the narrative will start a conversation on mental health in one way or another, it is easy to feel that the road to creating this dialogue might have been more polished.
*This review was originally published by Elements of Madness on July 4th, 2019, at https://elementsofmadness.com/2019/07/04/phil/*