There’s a feeling I always have when I’m watching Greg Kinnear in a movie. He can be a terrific actor (as the ’60s TV star and sex addict Bob Crane in “Auto Focus,” as the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper in “Flash of Genius,” doing his what-the-hell-let’s-let-it-rip dance to “Super Freak” at the end of “Little Miss Sunshine”). Yet even when he’s just okay, Kinnear seems like such a nice guy that I want him to succeed — I feel almost protective of him, as if he were my little brother (even though he’s now 56, albeit a still-boyish 56). That more-than-skin-deep geniality is the source of Kinnear’s appeal, going all the way back to his hosting gig on “Talk Soup,” where he had the weird ability to invest even pure snark with good vibes.
Given that, when I watched “Phil,” the first movie Kinnear has directed (he also stars in it), you can bet that the protective impulse was in high gear. Yet “Phil,” I have to report, is one of those precious indie nothings that hits you like dandelion fluff. It’s the sort of film that still has its original, now-changed title on the opening credits (it used to be called “The Philosophy of Phil”), and that was actually a better title. But someone up the chain of investment command must have looked at it and thought, “Let’s get rid of that pesky ten-dollar word philosophy,” and the result is that we’re left with a title so minimal and generic that it practically screams, “Don’t bother seeing this.” “Phil” is a trifle, and there’s no harm in that, but it’s an unconvincing trifle. The words “coy” and “whimsical” scarcely do justice to its coy whimsicality.
Yet there’s a seed of a decent idea here. Kinnear plays — yes — Phil, a dentist in Portland who is recently divorced and thinks that his life is over. He’s in a serious post-split funk, with a shabby apartment and a teenage daughter (Megan Charpentier) who doesn’t like to spend time there. The film opens with one of those over-the-top ersatz suicide attempts — Phil, bearded and disheveled, in his white dentist’s coat, stands on a bridge and considers taking the leap, with “(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden” playing on the car radio — that have been a staple of coy whimsical comedies since “Harold and Maude.” We know he won’t jump, because there wouldn’t be a movie if he did.
Back in the office, where Kinnear reveals his inexperience as a director by staging routine scenes of dental procedure without getting the details right (really? he’s going to shove the suction tube in and out of someone’s mouth instead of simply keeping it there?), Phil meets a patient named Michael Fisk (Bradley Whitford), who appears to Have It All. He’s an award-winning professor who babbles about how well the history book he wrote is selling. He mentions his beautiful wife who plays cello in the symphony, talks about the romantic time he spent in Greece, and about how, as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” — though the script, by Stephen Mazur, turns that line into a motif without quite getting what it means. When Phil explains that he always wanted to take his daughter to Greece but never did, and Michael uses that quote to support the idea that Phil should just go for it, the movie seems to be conflating “the unexamined life…” with “seize the day.” Hey, it’s all just high-end middlebrow movie stuff!
Phil, after that office encounter, decides that Michael is a man with the perfect life — the rose garden — that somehow eluded him. So he starts to stalk him, yearning to know the secret of his existence. But then Michael, out of nowhere, does something devastating. It turns out that he is not the happy camper he seemed. And Phil has to find out why. It’s as if his very identity depended on it.
He spends the rest of the film insinuating himself into the life of Michael’s wife, Alicia (Emily Mortimer), by pretending to be Spiros Papalapadopoulos, Michael’s old friend from Greece, who Kinnear impersonates as if he were auditioning to be the mascot on a package of frozen moussaka. As “Spiros,” he drinks bottles of ouzo, listens to tapes of bouzouki music, and wears a Greek fisherman’s cap that becomes his signature. He also speaks in a “Greek accent” so mild and generic that Kinnear might just as well be impersonating an Israeli tailor or a Balkan terrorist. (It’s the Esperanto school of adorable fake “foreign” acting.) And could a movie like this be complete without Zorba-the-Greek dancing? No, it could not, and yes, it is cringe-worthy — though the scene where Phil is called up to dance with a bunch of actual Greeks, and has to fumble around, might have been funny had it been pushed to full Leslie Nielsen-in-“Naked Gun” absurdity.
Kinnear is best playing characters with an acerbic awareness to them; he’s not so good playing semi-clueless bumblers. Phil, though he shows some sneaky acumen in his drive to impersonate Spiros, is too innocuous a presence to draw the audience to him. Even in his depression, he’s cuddly. The movie is about how he learns to love life again by giving himself over to his make-believe alter ego, and if Kinnear had pushed that idea further, it might have jelled. He would have done well to play Spiros as a guy who’s not so nice. But niceness, in itself, is no longer working for Kinnear. He needs to go for inner demons.