When I was 8, I told people that I wanted to be an engineer like my grandparents were. When I was 18, I wanted to be a psychiatrist and shortly thereafter a neurochemist. Now, I tell people that I’m trying to be a writer. To date, I’ve yet to finish a major project. Sometimes I criticize others with no need. I get moody, depressed, wild, and so forth. There’s a certain way that I, likely foolishly, think writers must live.
This is a horrible way to start an article, especially given that I’m writing about a movie and not me. Yet, somehow, this approach feels appropriate to discussing LISTEN UP PHILIP. This new release, the third film of writer and director Alex Ross Perry, is a lapidary dissection of the way people make themselves miserable – especially those of us who decide we’re going to be writers or artists or maybe, frankly, every single one of us. It is a story about the stories we create for ourselves, for better and worse.
The vehicle of this story is the titular Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), a young author who is just about to publish his second novel. He is an author who is incredibly mean, blunt, and cruel – taking deliberate action to single out those who have wronged him and brutally tear them apart with his words. He is the narcissist supreme, seemingly rarely caring for anyone else for longer than a moment. Other characters describe him as “intolerable.” Yet, more often than not, Philip’s diatribes are bitingly honest. The kind of honesty where he speaks what’s on his mind and from his perspective (and, I’ll admit, my own) he is in a way being fair.
Anxious about the publication of his second novel, Philip goes on a bender of ruining the lives around him, including that of his supportive photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). Philip ultimately finds companionship in his literary idol, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who in many ways is living Philip’s future if he continues in his arrogant ways. The relationship between these two men does little to ease the self-imposed isolation each is constantly creating. At the close of the film, it seems likely that neither will be able change.
Philip is played brilliantly. When I began college, Schwartzman was starring as an amicable writer turned goofy private detective in the HBO series BORED TO DEATH. Let’s just say that this show’s target audience was me, specifically me. It’s exciting to see Schwartzman play another literary character – there’s something about him that makes it seem as though he’s the kind of guy you can talk to about books. With Philip, Schwartzman fell right into place nailing both the sympathetic and far less so qualities of the character. If nothing else, LISTEN UP PHILIP is an incredible character study made possible only by the great care with which Schwartzman brings Philip to life. He is at times insightful, piercing, callous, whimsical, and darkly funny.
However, director Alex Ross Perry makes it a point to show that the crushing misery of the world afflicts us all through the use of an omniscient narrator (Eric Bogosian) who describes in depth the logical fallacies that drive each of Perry’s characters. Perry even breaks from following Philip for the majority of the film’s middle, instead focusing on Ashley as she deals with “recovering” from her failed relationship and Ike who is slowly coming to terms with the fact that he has pushed everyone away without knowing why or how. Both of these actors are titans in this film – expressing so much in the screen time they are given. I’ll leave the analysis of their acting chops to the other reviews (of which there are several). Suffice to say, Moss’ Ashley is both strong and tortured by loneliness and Pryce’s Ike is a modern-day Philip Roth.
Two minor characters did however stick out to me, and I’ve yet to see reviewers really dig into them. First, is Ike’s granddaughter, played by the sarcastic Krysten Ritter who provided some of the few, truly bright moments in BREAKING BAD. Her character is a vehicle both for showing that our actions (i.e. Ike’s) affect others and that sometimes our narcissism (i.e. Philip’s) prevents us from making the connections that are actually presenting themselves to us (N.B. I literally shouted at the screen when Philip walks away from her invitation to stay and chat). Her tearful argument with her father is perhaps the biggest outpouring of emotion in the film and it’s exciting to see Ritter fighting so hard to win this scene. We also have Yvette (Joséphine de La Baume) – Philip’s initial arch-nemesis at the liberal arts college where he gets a temporary position and ultimately his lover. It is so painful to see this character first admit that she was wrong to snub Philip when he first intrudes into her life only to see that he is not capable of being part of anyone’s life.
The acting in the film is held together by its beautiful camerawork. Shooting on 16mm handheld film (an exorbitantly expensive approach), cinematographer Sean Price Williams brings us up close and personal to the characters’ faces then lingers. We get to see the emotions move across their faces and mutate as we stay with them. More often than not, the punch lines to each scene are cut out – allowing us to imagine the awful way in which Philip has just closed the door on yet another relationship. I can only hope that we are lucky to get more films like this one – films that take our modern reality and the dreams we try to impose on top of it then translate these pieces into a language that belongs solely to the cinema.
LISTEN UP PHILIP (2014)
Dir. Alex Ross Perry
11/5 – 7PM & 11/7 – 4PM, Remis Auditorium
11/12 – 4PM, Alfond Auditorium
$9 Members / $11 Non-members
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
465 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115