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Greg Kinnear's 'Phil': A Midlife Crisis Comedy That Hurts

The Oscar-nominated star's directing debut is a tricky tale about suicide and survival

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 1 hour 46 minutes

Stars: Robert Forster, Greg Kinnear, Emily Mortimer, Bradley Whitford

Director: Greg Kinnear

In his directing debut, Greg Kinnear, 56, plays Phil, a depressed Portland, Ore., dentist in a comedy that's also as serious as a heart attack — or rather, as serious as suicide. The topic is all too relevant for grownups: Suicides in the U.S. increased 30 percent from 1999 to 2016, with the biggest increase among middle-aged Americans.

In the first scene, a takeoff on It's a Wonderful Life, Kinnear's Phil stands on a Portland bridge poised to plunge. But instead of meeting a kindly rescuing angel, he attracts a carful of kids who urge him to jump, eager for a video that will go viral. To their razzing disappointment, he climbs back to safety, but he's not really safe. He's alienated from his teenage daughter and his carping ex-wife, stuck in a crummy apartment, and bored senseless by drilling teeth.

His woe deepens when he encounters a perky patient, Michael Fisk (Bradley Whitford, 59, the West Wing star). Michael seems to have the perfect life, including a dazzling career, ritzy home, kid at Princeton and devoted wife (Emily Mortimer, 47, Mary Poppins Returns). Michael discovers that Phil and he both spent their youth in Greece, and urges Phil to take his daughter there, to make the most of life. He quotes Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living."

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But morbidly overexamining his life is Phil's whole problem. So he starts stalking Michael to steal the secret of his mysterious happiness. And when Michael hangs himself in the woods and Phil is the sole witness, he becomes obsessed with finding out why. He visits Michael's grave, gets drunk — and wakes up to find Michael's widow, Alicia, demanding to know why he's passed out on her husband's tombstone.

Michael had mentioned his dear old Greek handyman friend Spiros, so Phil impulsively decides to impersonate him. This fools Alicia, who invites fake Spiros into her life, giving Phil a chance to snoop through Michael's possessions for clues to his demise, and hints on perfecting his Spiros impression.

Screenwriter Stephen Mazur cowrote Jim Carrey's $300 million hit Liar Liar, with its inspired premise: a lawyer who suddenly discovers he cannot lie. The Spiros-impersonation idea is less inspired, though it does give the comedy a bit of tension that sometimes feels like Christina Applegate's excellent new Netflix hit Dead to Me, about a woman who befriends the widow of a man she accidentally killed.

But Mazur's gimmicky script isn't up to the level of the acting, which carries the picture despite the wobbly comedy-tragedy tightrope Mazur makes the talented cast walk. Kinnear's everyguy charm redeems his character, and since he spent six teenage years living in Athens, his spoof of Americans aping Greeks rings true. Mortimer, who is writing an update of her late father John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey, knows how to anchor comedy in emotion, and her utterly unbelievable character somehow feels real, or at least real-ish. Robert Forster, 77 (What They Had), is a standout in a too-short scene as Michael's dad. Jay Duplass, 46 (Transparent), is amusing as Phil's exasperated brother, Luke Wilson, 47, is fine as a detective investigating Spiro, and Taylor Schilling (Orange Is the New Black) keeps a poker face as Michael's suspiciously close friend and colleague, who might be mixed up with his demise.

You wish Phil were as good as Kinnear's Oscar-nominated turn in As Good as It Gets or his infinitely smarter and more good-hearted suicide-related comedy Little Miss Sunshine. It's not, but it does have some of their DNA. As an actor, Kinnear's a master; as a director, so far he's just promising.

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