By Michael Sandlin.

Greg Kinnear has come a long way since his early 1990s career phase sniggering at daytime talk show freaks for E! Network’s Talk Soup. Rising through the ranks of the late-night TV circuit, he finally gained some artistic cred with a series of marquee film roles playing disturbed souls floundering in the shadowy margins of the American Dream: the hapless artist Simon in As Good As it Gets (1997), doomed TV pervert Bob Crane in Auto Focus (2002), and probably his last memorable film acting foray as a not-so-lovable loser in the dysfunctional-family comedy Little Miss Sunshine (2006).

Kinnear’s latest indie film project is Phil, which co-stars mumblecore guy Jay (Puffy Chair) Duplass and indie-film stalwarts Robert Forster, Bradley Whitford, and Luke Wilson (yes, this is very indie, indeed). Kinnear’s work here would seem, on the surface, to be the acting challenge of a lifetime: in this schizoid role he plays not only a depressive middle-aged divorcee dentist (Phil) but also a jovial Greek fellow (Spiros) with an essentially unpronounceable last name. What’s more, Kinnear directs the whole damn thing himself.

Usually when we think of dentistry in the movies, our collective cinematic consciousness cuts straight to Marathon Man and Laurence Olivier inflicting maxillofacial torture on poor Dustin Hoffman.  Needless to say, the dark souls of dentists are rarely (if ever) explored in film or TV with any probing intellectual curiosity. Initially Kinnear plays the downcast dentist to near-perfection – he fills cavities as if in a trance, while barely tolerating his patients and his annoyingly chipper assistant. Then one day he finds himself on a bridge ready to end it all. Yet even his attempt at suicide ends up being an inane affair that backfires in his face.

But then Phil is confronted with a patient named Michael Fisk (Whitford), who is a distinguished professor with, as it would seem, just about everything going for him: he’s got a bestselling book, a cello-playing wife, perfect kids, he’s well-traveled (he waxes romantic about his latest sojourn in Greece) and – as a final insult – he appears to have perfect teeth. Fisk makes an immediate impression on Phil – one that will soon evolve into a desperate obsession. Next thing you know, Phil decides to set his professional life aside to stalk Fisk in search of the secret to a fulfilling life. Although it’s never quite clear what Phil stands to gain from all this – is he looking for an example to follow? Or is he merely looking for a selfish sense of assurance that the professor’s life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be? But then Phil follows Fisk into the woods one day and finds shocking proof that the happy-go-lucky professor must have been living a serious lie.

Unfortunately, it’s at this point that the film becomes an exhausting exercise in suspension of disbelief. Phil ill-advisedly decides to impersonate an old Greek friend of Fisk’s (Spiros something-or-other) so he can get closer to Fisk’s family and, presumably, find out just how the seeds of Fisk’s deep discontent were sown. Sadly, Kinnear goes from his first-rate performance as down-and-out dentist to a ham-fisted turn as Greek handyman Spiros returning to America to pay respects to his deceased friend Fisk. To prep for the role, Phil tries to teach himself how to speak English with a passable Greek accent. He guzzles Ouzo and buys himself a Greek fisherman’s hat. Although Phil’s silly Grecian schtick wouldn’t fool a single soul in real life, we’re supposed to accept that he wins the confidence of Fisk’s wife by convincing her not only that (1) he really is this Spiros guy but also (2) that he can help renovate her bathroom.  Meanwhile, while he’s learning to speak bad English and teaching himself to install plumbing, he doesn’t bother to leave a message with his dental assistant that he’s taking this extended vacation from reality. The idea that Phil’s ruse works for as long as it does is certainly a challenge to the boundaries of cinematic realism, but in a way that feels more naively presumptuous than boldly innovative.

Despite the film’s flaws (and there are plenty), it’s hard to fault Kinnear and writer Stephen Mazur for their ambitions in trying to pull off such a tricky tonal arc here: after the auspicious beginnings operating comfortably in tragicomic mode, Phil then makes an unconvincing attempt at modulating up to a perfectly pitched feel-good coda. For the first half hour or so, you’d be excused for thinking you were watching a Todd Solondz movie: but after an hour or so of Kinnear’s painful-to-watch Greco-doofus antics, we get softballed with a mawkish It’s a Wonderful Life conclusion. Phil, much like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, is undeservedly granted that coveted “second act” that Scott Fitzgerald told us American lives weren’t supposed to get.

With that said, there’s nothing specifically offensive about Kinnear’s choices a director here, the problem lies in the weak material he’s forced to work with. And it’s hard to think of many actors that could have made the whole dual Phil/Spiros role even halfway credible (other than Anthony Quinn, obviously). Mazur’s lame script simply isn’t up to the task at hand: It fails to plumb the necessary psychological depths to make Phil’s eventual spiritual renaissance convincing in the least.

Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.

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