Listen Up Philip Review
Alex Ross Perry has become known for independent features such as Impolex and The Color Wheel, with the latter named by Indiewire as “best undistributed film of 2011”. In his most recent release, Listen Up Philip, he explores the nature of artists and arseholery in equal measure. Woody Allen-esque in tone, Listen Up Philip is both biting and meandering, failing to quite match its inspiration in quality.
Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is a literary writer, relishing his success on the eve of the publication of his second book, Obeisance. Obnoxious to all those around him, including his editor, he is also depressive and filled with self-doubt. His meetings with the friends and foes of his past, designed as occasions to brag about his success, are full of droll comebacks. Schwartzman portrays his character’s naive self-absorption flawlessly.
Through his endeavours, Philip strikes a friendship with his idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a famed writer past his career’s prime. Throughout Pryce is a superb representation of a man eaten up by arrogance and loneliness, but not devoid of humour. His character’s egotism is equal to Philip’s, but unlike the latter, is performed consciously, both as a means to shield himself from relationships, and preserve his reputation as a writer. A voice-over comments on this, and each character’s emotional state throughout the film, not unlike opening scenes of many of Wes Anderson’s works. However, Perry let the text become too wordy. Verbose can often be comical, but here it is badly managed, veering into the pretentious. What’s more, this invisible narrator shows no sympathy for the subjects of its commentary and after a while, the relentless criticism becomes wearying.
On Zimmerman’s invitation, Philip abandons his frail relationship with his girlfriend Ashley (a brilliant performance by Elizabeth Moss) to spend the summer at the author’s country house. There he meets Melanie (Krysten Ritter), Zimmerman’s bitter and wounded grown-up daughter, and lands a job teaching creative writing at a nearby university.
This is where, unpredictably, the film’s focus splits in three between Ashley, as she adjusts to life in New York alone, the lonely Zimmerman, and Philip hating and being hated in his new job. Perry is at his best when describing the realities of life in New York - anyone living in a metropolis might relate to Ashley’s emotional fragility. She feels surrounded by people to whom she has no significant emotional connection, shifting between her exciting job as a photographer and her empty flat. There are touches of humour too, for instance when, desperate for company, she buys a cat. Zimmerman and Philip’s storylines are, on the other hand, plain dull.
Listen Up Philip flounders because save for Ashley, none of its characters develop. Watching people behave the same way over and over again, even if helped by great dialogue, isn’t edifying. Woody Allen does this much more subtly. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, his lead characters do end the same as they started - but they take us through an emotional arc during the film. Perry doesn’t shift his characters at all, and so audiences will be left wondering what the film was trying to say. Perhaps it’s an exposé of selfish modern life, or a satire of intellectual pretentions. Or maybe it’s that the egoistical cannot be changed. It’s really not clear - and given the originality of the premise, quality of dialogue, and solid acting, I wish Alex Ross Perry had let us find out.