Listen Up Philip Dir. Alex Ross Perry

[Tribeca Film; 2014]

Styles: dark comedy
Others: Margot At The Wedding, Greenberg

A sort of literary experiment set in motion, Alex Ross Perry’s third feature Listen Up Philip is an extremely interesting construction. The film borrows as heavily from novels as from cinema in its storytelling, down to the third-person narration (by Eric Bogosian), “chapters” dedicated to different characters, and emotions articulated through words rather than images (at least by the men in the film). Beyond form, the story itself circles around two writers, rising hotshot novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), and Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), the canonical author who mentors him. Perry was apparently heavily inspired by Philip Roth (I say apparently because I have only read Roth’s American Pastoral, so I don’t have a horse in that race). Ike Zimmerman is Philip Roth, Philip is Philip Roth, Philip is Roth’s The Ghost Writer — whatever the case it’s fair to say that Roth was an influence. This is important because influence is everything in Listen Up Philip. The sources are named, from the close-up, handheld cinematography inspired by Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, to the switch in perspectives inspired by William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions. It’s clear that Alex Ross Perry does his homework. But while I respect the intelligence and craft that went into making the film, Listen Up Philip is an easier film for me to admire than to love.

One of the best things about Philip is the introduction of Philip himself. We meet our young writer as his second novel, mysteriously titled Obidant, is about to be published. All we know about it is that it’s good enough to ensure Philip’s career. In celebration of his impending fame he goes on a psychologically cleansing rant, cutting ties with an ex-girlfriend, micromanaging a photo shoot, pissing off his publisher by refusing to do any promotion for the book. He is a haughty, immature jerk, blind to both his own privilege and his actual irrelevance in the grand scheme of things. He initially spares his long-suffering girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), a successful commercial photographer who for some reason tolerates Philip. But everything shifts when he meets Ike Zimmerman. The older writer takes Philip in, and invites him to spend the summer writing at Zimmerman’s upstate house. Too callow to break things off, Philip simply informs Ashley of his plans and leaves her behind.

This opening sequence of the film has a looser, more satirical feel than what follows. Once Philip goes upstate the film fractures a bit. The two men spend some time together at the house until Zimmerman gets Philip a teaching job at a college, then we begin following them separately. Zimmerman’s neglected daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) shows up, but she isn’t given much to do. We also spend a “chapter” with Ashley, who is mourning her separation from Philip. This is where the film lost me a little. I appreciated the switch to Ashley’s perspective, but her sequence didn’t cover enough ground for me. For someone who pays such attention to detail, the female characters in Philip were a bit of a disappointment. Yes, the close-ups of Elisabeth Moss are beautiful, but they didn’t move me they way they did others.

I must be missing something about Philip: in addition to the lovely Ashley, we meet two of his beautiful ex-girlfriends, as well as the chic French literature professor who becomes his girlfriend at the college. What draws these women to Philip? His aggressive language is the only muscular thing about him, and he shows no desire or passion for any of them (it’s not just Philip — the tone of the film is curiously asexual). In a recent interview Perry was questioned about Philip’s noxious treatment of people and he had this to say: “The creative people I’m in the periphery of who tend to be a bit more monstrous in their actions and treatment of others, I see them being forgiven, and I myself forgiven, because they’re really good at what they do.” It’s an interesting point, but not necessarily one I agree with. I think we may just have different views of talent and its power, and what’s attractive, or even permissible, to others. I’ve always witnessed that sort of creative narcissism as more pliant and inconstant. The truly monstrous thing is the torturous back and forth, the hope of love and the withholding — narcissism is not a straight, lonely line but a vicious circle.

It also surprised me that Perry called this his “New York film.” The street and subway montages have an authentic energy, but it’s a domestic story, and we spend most of the time inside apartments or houses. That’s not to say the production design isn’t excellent, because it is. I loved the autumnal palette of browns and oranges, the lived in feel of the spaces, and the spot-on design of the covers of Ike and Philip’s novels (one of the film’s best jokes). But the New York being referenced seemed more like a cultural construct, a fairy tale world where (white male) writers still rule the kingdom. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the film, or appreciate Perry’s obvious talent. But like the litany of ex-girlfriends, by the end I felt like Philip was not necessarily meant for me.

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