As soon as tragic comedy Listen Up Philip begins, you get a sense that it takes place in its own world (or at least a world that's on the edges of Wes Anderson and Woody Allen's). It's the type of movie that begins with a great sense of urgency, but then settles in to tell a larger story with complex characters and themes. In some ways, Listen Up Philip re-imagines what Max Fischer from Rushmore would be like if he grew up to be a 34-year-old man, which is why Jason Schwartzman casting of the titular Philip makes or breaks the film (and by all accounts it’s the former with moments that reflect the latter).
Listen Up Philip follows, you guessed it, Philip (actually Philip Lewis Friedman to be exact), an author who recently published his second novel, while coming to terms with his mediocrity and self-doubt as a human being and a writer. At the beginning of the film, we see him "tell off" the people who he feels were holding him back as a writer (an ex-girlfriend, college friend), while he races around New York City before the official release of his new book. Everything we need to know about Philip is presented before the film's opening credits pop up on the screen. Philip is brash, brutal, and self-centered. While his demeanor comes off as priggish (no, I think he's very priggish), he's just open about how he really feels about people - he doesn't like them.
Philip lives with his girlfriend Ashley, played by Elizabeth Moss, a kind and nurturing photographer who put aside a few career opportunities for Philip's budding career. However, much like everyone in Philip's life, she gets stepped on for Philip's literary ambitions. He seeks the help from his mentor Ike, played by Jonathan Pryce, an older author who is struggling with the success of his past career and can also be seen as an older version of Philip, if he continues down this dark path. Ike invites Philip to his summer home in upstate New York, where his daughter Melanie, played by Krysten Ritter (yes, the B**** in Apartment 23!), is the cabin's caretaker and who represents Ike's bitterness to the world around him.
If that last sentence seems like a literary device more than a character description, then you'd be right to call me out on it. Listen Up Philip is a novel, but for the big screen. It's not an adaptation of a novel, but rather it's presented with a literary panache that reminds me of Wes Anderson and Woody Allen combined. I'm not saying that as a pejorative, I'm just saying that as a descriptor.
In fact, what I like about Listen Up Philip is that its characters are so blunt, while being indirect with their thoughts and feelings. It's as if they use literature and success as a way to mask their relationships with the world around them. While that is fitting for a novel or short story, it feels that the film might get bogged down using literary devices for a cinematic experience. However, it works (for the most part).
The film comes complete with an omniscient narrator, voiced by writer Eric Bogosian, that speaks in prose to not only clue in viewers to a characters backstory or thoughts, but also feels and insight. While that shouldn't work, it does in this case. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry smartly keeps true to this convention, even if its to the film's detriment. The film starts off with an urgent purpose, but slowly diminishes when it focuses on its supporting characters such as Ashely and Ike. The film continues down the "snowflake method" of writing with an added story about Philip's hot/cold relationship with a French colleague, played by Joséphine de La Baume, at a liberal arts college where they both teach. While the addition doesn't hinder the film's themes, it further showcases Philip's inability to have a meaningful relationship with anyone, even an ostensible equal. As a viewer, it's not clear whether or not this method will pay off in the end, but it magically does by the time its closing credits roll.
Listen Up Philip loses a lot of steam once Jason Schwartzman is not in the movie and not surprising that the film builds up momentum once he is on the screen. Schwartzman coveys and adds so much to the film that I'm not sure it would work without him. He's cocky and arrogant, while funny and somewhat charming. He gives the film a much needed emotional pull that endears a viewer (or at least the one whose writing this review). There's some genuine pathos there that shouldn't be ignored. Ultimately, the film feels sour yet wonderfully witty and super satisfying. And bravo to Jason Schwartzman, Listen Up Philip is as much his movie as it is Alex Ross Perry's.
New York Film Festival 2014. Listen Up Philip opens on October 17, 2014.