One must tread carefully with suicide; it’s a subject that demands delicacy and nuance. When handled sloppily it can tear open old wounds from those who’ve lost loved ones that way. Or, even worse, it can inspire imitators, something Netflix learned the hard way after the release of their sensationalist teen suicide drama 13 Reasons Why (2017) which reportedly resulted in at least one copycat self-killing. Comedy, by its very nature, is none of these things: it’s confrontational and abrasive, uncomfortable and shocking, even at its most subtle and understated.
It’s difficult to pull off, but the two can in fact co-exist. Hal Ashby’s New Hollywood classic Harold and Maude (1971) was just as much a comedy about killing oneself as it was a romance between an emotionally disturbed teenager and a free-spirited septuagenarian. Likewise, Bobcat Goldthwait’s criminally under-rated World’s Greatest Dad (2009) is a black comedy masterpiece, seeing a brokenhearted father (played by Robin Williams in perhaps his last truly great role) framing his son’s accidental death by autoerotic asphyxiation as suicide to help cope with his own grief.
The succinctly titled Phil—the directorial debut of veteran actor Greg Kinnear—will likely never be mentioned alongside these two movies ever again, as it’s a sporadically maudlin, emotionally scattershot comedy destined for VOD obscurity. The film follows Phil (Kinnear), a manically depressed dentist whose life gets turned upside-down following the unexpected suicide of one of his patients, an academic named Michael (Bradley Whitford) with a seemingly perfect life. The suicide throws Phil’s into an existential crisis, as nothing about his death made sense: he was happy, successful, surrounded by a loving family and a rewarding career. Through a series of misunderstandings, Phil gets mistaken by Michael’s wife Alicia (Emily Mortimer) as Spiros—her husband’s Greek friend from his college days. Seeing this case of mistaken identity as an in to investigate what inspired Michael’s suicide, he ingratiates himself into Alicia’s life, fully adopting the Spiros persona and agreeing to renovate their house’s bathroom to gain access to his office and personal effects.
From here the film hits all the mistaken identity comedy-of-errors beats imaginable—the introduction of relatives who knew Spiros in the past, Alicia shanghaiing Phil into Greek cultural celebrations, pratfalls when police get involved and start poking around. Someone weeps naked in the shower; a commemorative toast is improvised; a computer log-in password guessed after days of manic trying. The ploy eventually comes tumbling down and after a series of tearful confrontations everyone walks away changed for the better. Supposedly, at least. It’s difficult to gauge emotional healing when restraining orders get involved.
Though Phil is derivative and just plain unfunny—the only memorable bit of comedy comes in a montage where Phil teaches himself an unconvincing Greek accent by studying youtube videos—it’s difficult to be angry with it because at the very least it doesn’t bowdlerize Michael’s suicide or lessen the impact of its tragedy. The last act which embraces the randomness of life isn’t likely to inspire any imitators. And while the visual style is flat and uninteresting, Kinnear manages to squeeze powerful performances from himself and the rest of his cast. If there’s any artistic virtue to be found here, it’s precisely in its own inoffensiveness.
If you or someone you know is considering hurting yourself, please call the toll-free 24/7 suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255