Film Review: LISTEN UP PHILIP (written and directed by Alex Ross Perry)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on October 12, 2014

in Film


In writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s new film Listen Up Philip, the always excellent Jason Schwartzman plays Philip, an egotistical and bitter young writer who’s just had his second book published. But with his dream of literary success coming to fruition he feels as miserable as ever. Just then Ike Zimmerman (the great Jonathan Pryce), an accomplished novelist of advancing years, takes him under his wing, inviting Philip to come and write at his country house. Initially, Ike gives Philip some valuable advice—don’t belittle yourself, don’t trivialize your work—but before long our eyes adjust to the glow of wisdom and sophistication radiating from the upperclassman, and we are able to see him clearly for the egotistical and bitter old man that he is. Is this the future that awaits young Philip?

Jonathan Pryce and Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip distributed by Tribeca Film.

Mr. Schwartzman is an actor I can watch doing anything. In problem movies he is, at the very least, entertaining; in good ones he’s magical. But after 40 minutes of observing Philip being shitty to everyone who cares about him at no cost to himself, and after realizing that his character is set up never to change, I got frustrated, then irritated, then bored; about halfway in, I just wanted this film to be over.

Krysten Ritter in Listen Up Philip distributed by Tribeca Film.

Mr. Perry’s problem here doesn’t appear to be a lack of talent or even of skill, but of maturity, both as an artist and as a thinker. This manifests itself in various ways. Philip is supposed to be about writers, yet neither the creative nor the spiritual aspects of writing are ever explored. All we get to see is the lifestyle, the attitude of the post modern author, which makes for an incomplete portrait.

Jason Schwartzman and Josephine de la Baume in Listen Up Philip distributed by Tribeca Film.

His characters have a hollowness to them. Women are at once idealized (they’re all sincere, honest and caring) and pathetic (they have no power). The men are viewed with both contempt and admiration, the latter in part for how truly contemptible they are. Evidently inspired by Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, Philip is shot in jarring handheld close-ups—a powerful weapon; unfortunately neither the drama nor Mr. Perry’s insights into his characters warrant its use.

Jason Schwartzman and Dree Hemingwaty in Listen Up Philip distributed by Tribeca Film.

A voiceover, whose chunks pop up too often and go on for too long, also seems to have been inspired by Allen, as well as sometimes being reminiscent of the one in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. But in the case of Philip this tool is both a cheat and an unnecessary nuisance. Speaking of Anderson, there’s a sequence of still shots of books in Philip that is such an obvious copy of similar shots in Anderson’s films that it’s embarrassing to watch.

Elisabeth Moss in Listen Up Philip distributed by Tribeca Film.

But the fundamental problem with Philip is that Mr. Perry appears to despise his main character. A filmmaker may want us to hate his protagonist but he still needs to give us reason to empathize with him. Perhaps Mr. Perry doesn’t have such a reason, meaning that Philip has no humanity, in which case, as a dramatic personage, he is irrelevant; but the more likely explanation is that Mr. Perry is unable to find a way to show Philip’s humanity to us, perhaps unable even to see it himself.

Elisabeth Moss and Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip distributed by Tribeca Film.

Still, Philip boasts excellent performances, especially from Misters Schwartzman and Pryce, as well as some nice bits of dialogue. What’s most encouraging though is that the filmmaker does seem to have a serious intention to create something personal, something special.

photos © Tribeca Film

Listen Up Philip
Tribeca Film and Faliro House
Sailor Bear and Washington Square Films
2014 / 108 minutes / USA
limited opening October 17, 2014 in NY
expanding nationally on October 23, 2014
available on VOD and iTunes beginning October 21, 2014
for more info visit Listen Up Philip

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