Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Listen Up Philip

LISTEN UP PHILIP (Alex Ross Perry, 2014)

Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) has every reason to feel important and isn’t shy about letting others know it in LISTEN UP PHILIP. He will soon be releasing his second book, has landed on a list of notable people under the age of 35, and become friends with respected novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Flush with this cultural currency, Philip elects to spend it by being a contemptible person. He decides not to do press for his novel and ditches Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss), his photographer girlfriend of two years, for an open-ended stay at Ike’s country house. It’s all done in the name of his art, but in reality it’s because he’s a certifiable jerk.

Eric Bogosian’s narration and Keegan DeWitt’s jazz-inflected score point toward a more literary and improvisational style. LISTEN UP PHILIP is not just the self-absorbed writer’s film. It also takes extended breaks to check in with Ashley as she comes to terms with her life now that Philip is out of it and Ike as he struggles to recapture the spark that had him cranking out books in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Often filmed in tight close-ups, LISTEN UP PHILIP focuses on the comedy and tragedy of characters who have difficulty seeing beyond their situations. It’s a world of petty grievances and scheming and self-sabotage and delusion. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry is merciless in depicting inward and outward cruelty with astringent humor. Philip’s cachet probably doesn’t extend much beyond certain literary and academic circles, yet he mistakes success as license to be surly, as though creative types owe it to the universe to be difficult in order to be taken seriously. Pricking the sense of superiority developed within highly specialized ecosystems is funny because it rings true. Plus, rotten people behaving without regard are amusing when the dialogue possesses sarcastic wit like Perry’s.

Schwartzman is sharply funny playing Philip as RUSHMORE’s Max Fischer as though he has grown up but kept the chip on his shoulder. Schwartzman uses passive-aggressiveness to deflect the miserable pain Philip can be. This technique also has the benefit of excusing his rudeness to some degree as long as he acknowledges he’s being awful. Philip seems more amused with the thoughts in his head than what others around him are saying. His acerbic outbursts are meant as much for himself as those he’s in conversation with. Pryce serves as a kind of Ghost of Christmas Future for Philip and one the mentee seems happy to become. Pryce sidles up to Philip like a vampire who needs to draw a victim close to steal the life force he has in short supply.

Perry is a perceptive filmmaker who uses the novelistic framework to extend empathy to those touched by Philip’s self-loathing and the incorrigible protagonist himself even as he resists it. LISTEN UP PHILIP doesn’t justify Philip’s awfulness or necessarily offer hope that he’ll learn, but in setting aside time to observe the impact he has on those close to him, it humanizes him beyond the arrogance so evidently on display. Bitterly funny and bittersweet, LISTEN UP PHILIP sheds insight on dissatisfaction driven by the creative impulse.

Grade: B+

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