LISTEN UP PHILIP
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de La Baume, Jess Weixler, Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 10/17/14 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 17, 2014
Listen Up Philip is something of a loaded title. While watching the film, there's a part of us that is either consciously or subconsciously listening for that line to cue a pronouncement that will define the eponymous character or give him the advice he so sorely needs. There's a list of candidates for that character- or theme-defining statement in director Alex Ross Perry's screenplay. Everything within the film is either directly or indirectly about Philip, a writer whose dream since he was a teenager has come true and who shows of what stuff he's made as a result. He's miserable.
He sulks and moans and complains. He rails against fame and sees everything as beneath him and treats everyone he knows as a nemesis standing in the way of the success that he doesn't seem to want. This is a man who has never been happy, is presently unhappy, and appears doomed to a lifetime of never experiencing what happiness is. Yes, there's a list of scenes or pieces of dialogue that seem like the one thing that this man should listen up and really hear, but there's one that stands out from the bunch. It comes from his girlfriend, who has spent years watching this man tear others down to bring himself up, in the middle of another one of his episodes of woe-is-me self-pity: "This is boring."
Perry knows this is true of his central character, played with a spot-on sense of maddening hollowness by Jason Schwartzman. The writer/director knows Philip is a black hole of interest—a one-note delivery system of repetitive, self-imposed anguish and intentionally hurtful jabs at others. We know he is aware of this because the film opens with a rush of narrated exposition (provided with rapid-fire precision by Eric Bogosian), which gets the specifics out of the way. We learn everything we need to know about Philip in these introductory scenes, and there's very little else that we learn throughout the film. It all reinforces that opening salvo of antagonism against others and unbridled ego.
Perry's knowledge is also noticeable in a section of the film in which the character simply disappears from the screen. It's almost as if the character has become too much for the screenwriter to endure, so Philip is absent for a stretch.
He's off some place doing one thing or another, but does it really matter? Instead, the focus is on Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), who starts the film as Philip's live-in girlfriend and becomes just another on the list of exes he despises but can't seem to get past.
We're still seeing Philip in these scenes, or better, we're seeing the effect he has on those with whom he comes into contact. Near the start, the narrator informs us that Ashley has become distant from Philip in the months leading up the publication of his second book. Then again, he has been distant from her for much longer, and sporadically throughout the section in which Ashley becomes the center, we enter her memories of what should have been the happier times with Philip. They aren't too happy. Perry's camera holds on Ashley's face as the couple is on a date and Philip yells at a man who dares to ask him to keep down his voice.
Moss' performance is vital not only as the one, truly sympathetic character in the film but also as a way to show us that Philip's is a special kind of misery. We observe as she's heartbroken over the relationship ending, and in the highlight of her performance, we see her having her photograph taken. The shot starts with a fake smile that gives way to some dark thought, and somehow, the smile emerges again. This time, though, it's sincere. She has suffered, but she is able to overcome.
Philip does not have the capability for this. The film starts with him meeting an ex-girlfriend in order to brag about the publication of his book. This "new" Philip has decided to start speaking his mind. The key, of course, is that he's always had these thoughts; it's just that now he feels he has success to validate them. He meets with an old friend from college to berate him for abandoning the plan that years ago they scrawled on napkin, which Philip still has in possession. He plays a cruel trick on a young woman whom he met when his first book was published. She has the nerve to not remember meeting him then but wanting to get to know him now.
The most important relationship is between Philip and Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a once-successful author who hasn't published a book in six years. In this man, we have a vision of the future for Philip (Note the generalizations: "Everyone" is against them, and "everything" is rotten).
Without any friends or colleagues who will give him the time of day and a daughter (Krysten Ritter) who can't stand him, Zimmerman takes Philip under his wing. He also seems to be setting the young author on a course that will allow Zimmerman to believe that he is at least better than this upstart kid. Listening to the two men talk, Perry's dialogue gives the sense of men who may or may not be smartest men in the room but who certainly want to give the impression that they are.
Perhaps it's all a little on-the-nose, especially with the narration, which eventually tells us what we already know. Even so, Perry is unafraid to put these characters in the harsh light they earn, and the film's single-minded depiction of Philip's poisonous personality is almost as fascinating as the character is unpleasant. Listen Up Philip doesn't sugarcoat a thing, and that includes its pitch-dark ending. Philip doesn't get what he deserves so much as he obtains the deepest desire of his miserable heart.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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