Listen Up Philip (2014)

Rates: * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? Growing fan of Alex Ross Perry and am catching up on his back catalogue.

Cast, crew, etc.


Philip is a rising young literary star; after an acclaimed debut novel, written at a precocious age, he is now waiting for his second book to be released. But his burgeoning success is not bringing him happiness. Drifting apart from his photographer girlfriend, and irritated by the demands of the limelight, he is drawn to an older literary hero: Ike Zimmerman, a famed novelist now wallowing in self loathing.

Alex Ross Perry’s acerbic comedy-drama is a pointed critique of artistic types, whose talents give them a free pass to be terrible human beings. Perfectly inhabited by Jason Schwartzman, Philip is mostly reprehensible; rude, inconsiderate, mean, aggressively self absorbed, petty and selfish. Nearly everything that comes out of his mouth, is horrifyingly awful. Why do people put up with him? Because they all agree: the kid can write.

Philip is so focussed on himself, he cannot see the danger signs of where he is headed. His friendship with Ike, played with arrogant charm by Jonathan Pryce, is a mutual appreciation loop that benefits neither. Ike is really just an older version of Philip; bitter, hostile, paranoid, estranged from his daughter, lonely and isolated. He has achieved fame and critical success, at the cost of everything else. And his attempts to ‘help’ Philip, really just ensure that the younger writer will make all of the same mistakes.

This sounds like a lot of toxic behaviour to suffer through, but Perry is skillful enough to ensure these difficult characters still make for an engaging movie. He has written a lot of funny lines and exchanges, that are delivered rapid fire, one of top of the other, a la classic Woody Allen. The humour is droll, and the tone satirical. And there is some innovation in his direction as well.

After focussing solely on Philip for the first half hour, which I had expected the whole film to be, it then shifts dramatically. As Philip abandons his girlfriend (the wonderful Elisabeth Moss) for an upstate teaching job, the film suddenly switches to her; dealing with her hurt feelings, buying a cat, eventually getting on with things. Philip disappears from the film, just like he disappears from her life. Later, the film will switch again; now allowing us to spend more time with Ike, and giving us a full sense of the unpleasant cul-de-sac he has maneouvred himself into.

This gives the movie a literary style structure, like a book broken into three sections. And the allusions between the different mediums don’t end there: the title of the film sounds exactly like the sort of meaningless sentence fragment that Ike calls all of his novels (‘Necessity Never Rests’, ‘When the Chips Are Down’, a bunch of these are amusingly spread through the closing credits).

The title is also an instruction, one which the central character is not going to heed. As is made clear in a final voice over spiel, Philip learns nothing from the events of the movie and will continue his evolution into Ike. It is a fitting outcome for such an unpleasant person, while also a little sad. And this made think of Woody Allen too: ‘The one thing that intellectuals have shown us is that you can be absolutely brilliant, and still have no idea what’s going on.’

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