‘Listen Up Philip’ Review

From contributing writer Stephanie Brandhuber

A sardonic cross between a Woody Allen film and a Wes Anderson dreamscape, Listen Up Philip is Alex Ross Perry’s unsentimental indie flick starring Jason Schwartzman and Elizabeth Moss. Although it’s hard to think of a more obnoxious, irredeemable, and completely unlikeable character than Schwartzman’s Philip Lewis Friedman, Schwartzman delivers such an impressive display of  deadpan comedic schtick that you can’t help but find a certain amount of charm in what could otherwise be misinterpreted as a film completely devoid of sympathy and pathos.

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Set within the inner circles of New York City’s litterati, Listen Up Philip focuses on the talented, yet self-possessed and emotionally blank young novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), who, after cancelling his book tour due to his desire to have his work speak for itself instead of pedalling his wares, befriends an ageing Philip Roth-like author called Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) who invites him to spend time at his country residence in order to become reinvigorated with the spirit of creativity of which  the city seems to have zapped him. Leaving behind his successful photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), for whom Philip appears to have more passive contempt than affection, the young novelist begins his temporary residence at Zimmerman’s isolated retreat, where he drinks and converses with his new mentor and fellow misanthropist. Unbeknownst to Philip, Zimmerman’s grown daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) is also staying in the country house, despite her very clear contempt for her father and his withdrawn-from-society ways.

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Back in the city, Ashley has decided to do her best to move on from her toxic and unfulfilling relationship with Philip, ridding her apartment of his possessions, and attempting to ward off the feeling of loneliness that comes with being single in the big city. As Ashley repairs her life in New York, Philip meanwhile begins teaching at a rural college, but finds himself isolated and disliked by his fellow colleagues. That being said, he manages to somehow spark an unsatisfactory romantic relationship with his French colleague Yvette (Josephine de la Baume), once more weighing down yet another relationship with his burden of being, and his self-centric outlook on life.

Alex Ross Perry presents Listen Up Philip in a very novelistic way, not only using an omniscient narrator (Eric Bogosian) to fill in the plot gaps for the audience but also by  transferring the focus of the plotline from Philip to Ashley, and then to Ike. In this way, Perry keeps the viewer engaged and feeling invested in the hope that there might be something salvageable and hopeful for one of the main characters, Ashley’s mid-way plot shift providing a much needed emotional salve to the irritating itch that is Philip’s character. Indeed, in such a densely wordy film, Elizabeth Moss’ silent emotional downfall and repair after Philip leaves speaks volumes above Philip’s verbose egomania. Moss delivers a stunning performance leaving you wishing the camera would stay with her in grainy close-up just a little bit longer before re-focusing on the outstandingly well-acted but ultimately repellant Philip.

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As irksome and repugnant as Philip is, not since Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998) has there been such a perfectly-matched role for Jason Schwartzman. A little bit Marmitey in general himself, Schwartzman won’t be winning any popularity contests with this particular role, but it can’t be denied that he plays the role of Philip so outstandingly well that you almost don’t mind spending time with his character thanks to the quality and skill of his acting. With humour so dry you need a tub of moisturiser next to you while watching the film, Listen Up Philip makes no pretences about trying to be a likeable film. Perry gives us a low-key, jazz-like portrait of a misanthropic man in a world of literary affectation, and, although at times the film feels like it’s slipping into a state of being more annoying than entertaining, Perry’s novelistic narrative switch-up makes the onset of dullness more of a lingering threat than a veritable danger.

All in all, Perry tests the limits of just how obnoxious he can make his lead character, and in a certain way, just as Philip cares little if he is liked or not, Listen Up Philip likewise makes no particular effort to be likeable, but rather lets the talent of the actors speak for itself and, with the dark humour and dry wit that pervades the entire film, it’s the most likeable unlikeable film this year.

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

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(Photos copyright: Sailor Bear, Washington Square Films, Faliro House Productions)

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