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Listen Up Philip

D: Alex Ross Perry / 109m

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de La Baume, Jess Weixler, Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil, Eric Bogosian

On the verge of having his second novel published, Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman) takes the opportunity to berate the people who didn’t support him when he was trying to get his writing career off the ground. And yet he doesn’t feel any better for doing so. His success is making him unhappy, both with his publisher who wants him to undergo a book tour, and with his girlfriend, Ashley (Moss), a photographer who’s beginning to achieve her own success. As Philip does his best to sabotage his various relationships, his publisher puts him in touch with respected, prize-winning novelist Ike Zimmerman (Pryce). Ike has read Philip’s second novel and liked it enough to want to meet him.

Their meeting leads Ike to offer Philip the use of his country house. Ike feels that living in the city isn’t conducive to producing great writing, and Philip agrees with him. His decision adds tension to his relationship with Ashley who hates that he’s made such a decision without involving her. At Ike’s country house, Philip meets Ike’s daughter, Melanie (Ritter). She’s not impressed by his angry, selfish behaviour, and sees him as just another (younger) version of her father, someone Ike can further mould in his own image.

Ike arranges for Philip to teach at a college for a semester. Again his decision upsets Ashley and she decides while he’s gone to end their relationship. As she begins to establish a life without Philip, he becomes intrigued by one of the other teachers at the college, Yvette (de La Baume), and they begin a tentative relationship. When things with Yvette don’t work out, Philip returns to Ashley but finds that his certainty about their relationship and her needs aren’t exactly what he believed.

Listen Up Philip - scene

An absorbing if not entirely rewarding look at the life of a writer who takes the pursuit of selfishness to new extremes, Listen Up Philip is an unsubtle drama that spends a lot of its running time reinforcing – as if we need it – the idea that Philip is a deeply unpleasant person to be around. From the first scene where he lambasts his ex-girlfriend, Philip’s caustic, choleric attitude is clearly going to be difficult to deal with for the entire movie, and writer/director Perry wisely avoids putting Philip centre stage throughout. He’s quite simply an asshole, something Philip himself acknowledges from time to time, but the problem is that his self-awareness isn’t used to initiate any self-improvement. Philip remains resolutely selfish and arrogant all the way to the movie’s end, and even though he’s played superbly by Schwartzman, the lack of an appreciable character arc is disappointing, and leaves the movie feeling like an extended snapshot rather than a full-fledged story.

There’s also the issue of Philip’s relationship with Ike, a father/son dynamic that never really goes anywhere, other than to show that how Ike is now, is how Philip will be when he’s older, whether he’s as successful or not. As played by Pryce, Ike is as unappealing and dismissive as Philip is, intellectually snobbish, emotionally stunted, and a firm believer in the high quality of his own endeavours. So instead of having one unpleasant, narcissistic character to deal with, Perry gives us two, and the movie seems set to be a bit of an endurance test: can the viewer possibly withstand the deleterious effects of spending so much time with two such disagreeable characters? But, thankfully, Perry splits them up and sends Philip off to college where he can alienate a whole new bunch of characters.

With Philip out of the way, Perry turns his attention to Ashley, and at last the movie gives us a chance to get to know someone we can sympathise with. Moss is just as good as Schwartzman – if not better – and she shines as the under-appreciated Ashley, slowly building up the character’s confidence and determination to improve matters relating to her work, her friendships, and her relationship with Philip. It’s a terrific performance, balanced and intuitive, and the movie becomes more interesting when she’s on screen. (If the movie had been about Ashley, and Philip was a secondary character, then, who knows?) By the end, the viewer is rooting for her to succeed, and Perry gives us the outcome we’ve all been hoping for.

Perry also gives us a very erudite script with plenty of juicy, faux-intellectual dialogue for the cast – and narrator Eric Bogosian – to sink their teeth into. There are literary, cinematic and philosophical references galore, some obvious, some more obscure, but all seemingly included to give the impression that Philip and Ike operate on a higher creative plane than the rest of the characters. It soon becomes overbearing, which may have been the intention, but when the narrator spouts such precepts and apothegms as well, it becomes too arch and mannered to have any meaning, even if it does sound good.

Ultimately, there’s no explanation for Philip’s behaviour that would allow the viewer to appreciate the way he is, and again, this leaves us with a main character it’s hard to associate with, or feel any affinity for. Nihilistic it may be but with Philip so determined not to be happy, and with no intention of letting others around him be happy, not even Keegan DeWitt’s vibrant score, or long-time collaborator Sean Price Williams’ immaculate photography can counteract Perry’s attempts to show how isolated we can become from our friends and family, and ourselves. It’s doubly ironic then that when Philip is off screen, the movie picks up and becomes more involving.

Rating: 5/10 – dour and often feeling like it’s too clever for its own good, Listen Up Philip has two impressive central performances, and a vivid sense of its main character’s vanity, but at the expense of a narrative that holds the attention; a good effort nevertheless, but one that the casual viewer might need to be in a certain frame of mind for before watching it.