LISTEN UP PHILIP Review

Listen Up Philip is something of a rarity in the sense that it means to appear to have itself completely together yet be about a man who can't figure himself out despite his composed, external appearance. The titular character being a narcissistic albeit creative individual with a short fuse and a big mouth is about as pompous as you could imagine while having something of the credulity to act as such, but not enough notoriety to have earned it. This is to say that it presents its main character in an honest and brutal way with a sleekness that oozes through every piece of dialogue, but is so specifically calculated we realize from the beginning it is making up for so much that Philip is ultimately lacking. That the effort he puts into consistently sounding superior in intelligence and in life in general is so draining that it must serve as the most urgent of responsibilities if he's unable to let the actions of his life speak for themselves. That said, writer and director Alex Ross Perry (who I've not seen any of his previous work) does allow for a surprising amount of telegraphed emotions beyond his elegant dialogue that so exactly captures the spirit and mindset of those who believe they are entitled to more because they possess more talent than the common man. Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is hopeless, desperate even at the point in life in which we meet him when he should instead be feeling unstoppable. He thought he should be feeling unstoppable as well and because this moment in his life he's been working towards has finally happened and that it is something of a disappointment leaves his personality that is typically so set on his own conceit that he doesn't know how to handle the loss of hope and pride he once held in such high esteem. Of course, Philip would never admit to this kind of defeat or despondency as the film refers to it, but if Listen Up Philip is actually about anything it is the defeat of the human spirit and how each individuals perspective on life combined with their egotism shapes how they come out on the other side.

This other side is what the movie is building to while displaying its characters in the crux of the circumstances that will set the tone for the remainder of their lives. We are essentially seeing the hinge between the "before" and "after" sections that our lives will be broken into when we look back on them in our elder years. In that sense the film is more a character study than anything narratively innovative and so we follow Philip in the instance of time as he awaits the publication of his second novel. He refers to himself as slightly noteworthy which is refreshingly honest considering how highly he considers himself, but is reassuring in the sense that despite he believes himself to be of a of a higher degree of validity than the common man he knows his place in the grand scheme of things. He feels pushed out of his home, New York City by the constant crowds and noise that allow for art to be adored, but not created. He has a rocky and waning relationship with his photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) while again employing his self-worth to make him believe he is big enough to be able to sell his book without promoting the novel. The interesting thing is this slightly contradicts what I gave Philip a generous comment for doing earlier in knowing his place in the grander scheme. He wants the recognition, the appreciation for being as smart and gifted as he is, but only by those worthy enough to recognize his genius through his work alone. He wants to strictly be known through his words while creating no other public persona for fans to latch onto and associate with what the intent of his novels may be. It is admirable, sure, but rare and undoubtedly selfish when it comes to the inner circle of agents and publishers who put their own credibility on the line for a marginally famous author. The precipitating incident from which Philip feels things might begin to lean towards the brighter side is when his idol, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), offers his isolated summer home as a refuge from the city so that he might write, but instead turns out to be more time allowing him to focus on himself more than ever. Just what he needed, right?

Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) and Philip (Jason Schwartzman) have a rather rocky relationship.
Here it is, straight up: Listen Up Philip is a fine enough film that I just didn't find very interesting despite knowing people like these characters and feeling many of the feelings purported myself. I get what it's going for and if you've followed certain directors for any amount of time you can tell from the opening scene and its aesthetic all the way through to the title screen that Perry is a student of late sixties/early seventies films that find their strokes in the literary dramedy contained within New York City. If you've seen a Woody Allen film from that era you understand the tone and intention of style or even if you've seen anything of late from Noah Baumbach or Schwartzman's frequent collaborator, Wes Anderson, then you understand what Perry is going for and on most accounts he nails it. Perry clearly knows what he wants, is obviously an intelligent guy and knows how to capture the essence of what he is trying to say in the form of characters, their context and the dialogue they spew, but it is the question of if he does this effectively that hindered my experience of the film.

This amalgamation of specific kinds of sweaters with certain textures and mute colored cloths that touch upon the internal struggles of intellectuals and their unavoidable indiscretion despite knowing better all conveyed through the knowing yet deliberately evocative rhetoric with others and themselves is almost a genre within itself and so we know what we're getting the moment we see these warning signs. Warning signs is a little harsh as clearly there is much to be gained from the films that fall into these qualifications, but Listen Up Philip is too knowing for its own good. I mean, the quirkiness of Perry seems so deliberate that he is holding a cat in his IMDB picture and that type of intentional facade-building, for some reason, irks me the wrong way. It is strange because the greatest example of this comes in the form of the third-person omniscient narration that is accurate to the point of hilarity and admirable for the effortless ability with which it captures an essence that I liked it, but is frustrating to the point of being so obvious. Who knows, maybe it is my own insecurities picking up on the specific facets Perry has tapped into that I'd rather not face, but if that were the case I don't know that I'd feel as disconnected to the material.

Yvette (Joséphine de La Baume) quickly becomes frustrated with her and Philip's affair.
All of that said, there are certainly redeemable factors to the film that hopefully you've picked up on so far by reading between the lines of the opinions and thoughts I'm trying to put into words here. Two such qualities stick out to me the most as attractive and they are the consistent dedication to maintaining the nostalgic style of the piece as well as the performances that bring the words of Perry to an honest light rather than in the staged and very literary way in which they are written. Schwartzman is especially effective as Philip as he's a guy you can see the actor actually being considering the persona he consistently takes on and that is documented by his previous work. Make no mistakes, this guy is a grade-A asshole and doesn't care who knows it as he will happily tell you what he thinks no matter how much it might hurt you. Beyond simply being pompous and having no filter to go along with it, the real, underlying idea is that Philip is completely miserable despite it all and can't help but to take his anger and aggression out on those around him. This is clearly what has happened in the majority of his romantic relationships as he opens the film by lambasting an ex-girlfriend for not being as punctual as he'd like and goes on to further illustrate this with current love, Ashley. The unexpected deviation of the film comes when it chooses to analyze Moss' character and what her experiences are while Philip is away rather than constantly sticking with its presumed protagonist. Not only does this give Moss, the actor, room to show off how well she can convey the multitude of emotions her character is experiencing purely through body language and non-verbal interaction with her cat, but it also allows the audience to feel more sympathetic to her plight. Pryce and a brief appearance by Krysten Ritter are heated further by the possibility Philip is looking into his own future, but a tacked on love angle with a fellow professor (Joséphine de La Baume) only seems to reinforce a point already made.      

Listen Up Philip the film and its central character is, in many ways, a contradiction of contradictions. They want what they can't have, what they aspire to be and when it is blessed upon them and is not all they expected there is more roaming and criticizing to be done until some unattainable, indescribable satisfaction is found. The difference though is whether they are looking for satisfaction or are truly searching for happiness which Perry seems to suggest Philip would like if he could get past himself, but that doesn't seem a possibility making the outward selfishness and lack of sentimentality Philip possesses all the more distancing rather than endearing. I don't think we're necessarily supposed to like Philip, but if we aren't he should likely serve as a cautionary tale, which he doesn't-at least not for me. All of this, in the end, leads to an especially well-designed, written and introspective journey that while intermittently compelling doesn't land in a way that allows me to admire it, no matter how much it cares if I do or not.