Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Listen Up Philip

Grade: 94/A

Comedies don’t come much more acerbic or incisive than Listen Up Philip, the new film by The Color Wheel writer-director Alex Ross Perry. Like Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach before him, Perry looks at neurotics, misanthropes and egotists with an empathetic eye, understanding their difficulty letting people in without downplaying the pain they inflict on those around them. Unlike his predecessors, Perry doesn’t bring them to enlightenment, or even a clearer understanding of their own toxicity. He recognizes that for every person who learns to stop being such an asshole, there’s a dozen who only have their worst habits reinforced to the point of self-isolation.

In this case, the asshole is Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), a writer awaiting the publication of his second novel. Already an arrogant prick, Philip takes his newly “noteworthy” status as an excuse to act like the perfect example of a self-important author. Philip’s confidence impresses his Philip Roth-like literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who invites him to stay at his country home and only further fuels his protégé’s bad behavior.

From the opening scene, in which he berates an ex-girlfriend for showing up to an appointment late, Schwartzman plays Philip a bit like what would happen if Rushmore’s talented but supercilious Max Fischer never learned anything from his misteakes and only blamed everyone around him. Schwartzman’s innate charm keeps us with Philip, but the actor never ingratiates himself to the audience, forcing us to think marvel as he smugly refuses to write letters of recommendation for students or give an inch to his girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss).

Schwartzman is matched by Pryce, rarely better than as a more relaxed but no less nasty character. Listen Up Philip may be the most perverse mentor-student movie of the year (yes, even more than Whiplash), as the mentor does little more than encourage his student’s misanthropy by giving him poisonous advice (all while passive-aggressively belittling him), telling him that the people around him are leeches and vultures. He has a long-suffering woman of his own, in this case his justifiably bitter daughter (a heartbreaking Krysten Ritter). He's a model for what Philip is going to become: unbending, quietly cruel, convinced that anyone who tries to get close to him is trying to take and anyone who criticizes him is out to hurt him. Neither man is capable of emotional openness because it requires them to admit when they've been shits.

There’s something cruelly funny about their behavior, and about the lovely, literary narration by Eric Bogosian, which acts as a dark flipside to Alec Baldwin’s narration in The Royal Tenenbaums (which Perry further alludes to with the use of intricately-designed fake book covers). But Perry’s handheld, close-up-heavy approach is closer in method and objective to the excruciating intimacy of John Cassavetes. It’s telling that for all the time Perry devotes to Philip and Ike, he spends most of the film’s second act focusing on Moss’s Ashley as she slowly gets over her breakup with Philip. It’s a painful process that Perry maps out in great detail, from abandoned trysts to new pets, but it also makes us truly happy that she can move on and grow as a person, as well as sad that Philip never will. 

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Check out my account on Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gone Girl

Grade: 79/B+

David Fincher makes films not just about obsession, but how obsessives bury themselves in the hows of their fixations rather than the whys. Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, even the much-criticized The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are all about people who are so fully convinced of what they want, what they need, what they deserve or what they’re looking for that they don’t stop to wonder why they’re doing it, why they want it or why they might be wrong. If they’re lucky enough to have someone push them out of their obsession, they’ll find the reasons (lack of a meaningful relationship, past trauma, what have you), but to them, the reason is “because.”

That describes nearly every character in Gone Girl, Fincher’s adaptation of the black-hearted novel by Gillian Flynn (who wrote the screenplay). They’re all convinced that a man is a murderer, or that they deserve a partner that’s their ideal rather than real, for reasons that amount to “because that’s what it should be.” It’s a contender for being the coldest film of Fincher’s career, his Ace in the Hole. Where some of Fincher’s films find a trace of empathy, even pity for its characters, Gone Girl can only look at what the men and women on the screen have wrought for each other with a mixture of morbid fascination and scorn.

That perfectly describes the shitstorm that greets Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) after his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. He’s never been good at expressing himself, so his apparent lack of interest in his wife’s disappearance (coupled with his growing dissatisfaction with their marriage) has everyone suspicious. Within a few days, the media, the police, the small Missouri town, and Amy’s parents all suspect Nick, and even his loyal twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) and the one cop who’s not wholly convinced (Kim Dickens) have trouble not believing it. Meanwhile, Amy’s diary reveals the slow implosion of their relationship from its idyllic beginnings through the recent recession, the loss of their jobs, their move from New York to Missouri, and her growing belief that her husband is a threat to her.

That describes roughly the first hour of Gone Girl, and most of the reviews have had to dance around the Big Reveal that comes after Amy’s diary reaches the day of her disappearance. Up to that point, the film is less the novel’s “he said, she said” structure and more “she said, he did.” Nick’s side of the story is less self-analytical, more plain, where Amy’s is inviting and diagnostic.

Fincher’s touch in Affleck’s makes it more objective as a way to keep the viewer at a distance, question Nick’s every move, sort through the information as it comes. The compositions are meticulous but flat, where Amy’s are first sleek and seductive, then oppressive and isolating. Fincher’s trademarked shallow-focus close-ups first unite the two by emphasizing their gaze, sometimes keeping both in frame and in focus while everything else tunes out, then turn him into a hulking menace. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score is largely absent in Nick’s section, but it’s constant in Amy’s, first serene, then abrasive in its use of static. Amy’s side is so convincingly sold that it’s easy to ignore the movie-ness of it, the His Girl Friday-level unreality of the wooing, the stalker movie rhythms and overblown nature of the domestic drama. That’s dancing awfully close to spoilers (which I’ll get to below), but the game Fincher plays is “How to Clearly Give Something Away But Still Fool You.” The film turns us into the obsessive bystanders gawking at a freakshow case, giving enough information to damn that it’s easy to put anything that might not confirm our suspicions as extraneous.

It also plays at our suspicions and prejudices with its casting choices: the usually questionable performer Tyler Perry (spectacularly cutting here) as a lawyer of questionable taste in cases; the immensely-talented but underutilized Pike as a woman whose beauty and intelligence obscures how little we know about her. Affleck in particular is a smart casting choice. He’s an actor whose past relationships and ubiquity have made him a subject of intense media scrutiny and disdain, not to mention a performer whose difficulty at expressing complex emotion makes him perfect for much-scrutinized man who has only three modes he’s adept at, charm and rage, while everything else falls under too glib or too studied.

Why is everyone so convinced? Because…that’s the way these things go. Gone Girl stacks the deck against Nick, just as the media’s coverage of his case stacks the deck against him, with cold precision (sometimes to the point of being stifling). The same goes for Nick and Amy’s marriage. By the time the film gets into the truths of their marriage and the case, the actual motivations are made clear, but it’s more about what they’ve been told to expect from a perfect marriage and what happens when they don’t get it. Nick and Amy do terrible things to each other, both by accident and as a way of punishing each other. Why? “That’s marriage.” Why’s that? Because.

Fair Warning for Spoilers

Ok, here goes: “she kidnapped herself, Walter.” Pike’s Hitchcockian Blonde look should be another giveaway that there’s something fishy in her story, but again, the film stacks the deck to make us buy that Nick’s the one who’s at fault because she’s far more persuasive. Some have complained about the choice to have her narration stop after it’s revealed that she faked her murder in order to get revenge on Nick for growing distant and cheating on her. I think it’s a canny move, considering how the film considers her not just smarter than him, but smarter than all of us. In the novel, we’re in on Amy’s plot. In the film, we’re always a few steps behind her. She’s as unknowable to us as she is to Nick until we see the full scale and precision of her method. The reasons: "I deserve this in marriage." Why? Amy's a little more self-analytical in the novel, talking about how her parents tried to turn her into "Amazing Amy" and how she's always been expected to be perfect, so she should have a perfect marriage. That's somewhat present here, but it can still be boiled down to that cold, succinct "because."

Part of me wishes, actually, that we got more into Nick’s head, or more rooted in his perspective, after the reveal came. I can see why it doesn’t happen: the film considers Nick insignificant and weak compared to Amy. His idealization of her as a “cool girl” and conflation of her deviousness with all women is rightly seen as more pathetic than pitiable*. He doesn’t necessarily deserve that same consideration. But as soon as we’re put on the outside looking into Amy’s plans, we’re mostly left at the cold remove Fincher puts us until the film reaches its gonzo final third and everything is out in the open. That muffles a lot of what happens in between, which is what’s keeping me from falling in love with the film.  

Gone Girl has been compared to a number of David Fincher’s earlier films, but not the one it most resembles. Critics have compared it to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s inherent pulpiness, with Fight Club’s meta-misogyny, with Zodiac’s endless dissection of a case with hundreds of false leads and bits of information, and with The Social Network’s view of how we perceive the truth based on the few facts and hundreds of “facts” we get from the media.

All of these are true, but Gone Girl is, in its twisted way, a therapy movie in the guise of a thriller, and a dark cousin to Fincher’s polarizing 1997 thriller The Game. Both use an elaborate (some would say “implausible,” to which the answer is “who cares”) plot to work through years worth of hostility, pettiness and resentment to repair a relationship, even if Amy’s scheme begins as revenge. They’re now far closer and far more honest with each other than they’ve ever been, just as The Game’s brothers (Michael Douglas and Sean Penn) are far closer than they’ve ever been. The big difference is that The Game is redemptive, pushing Douglas toward the people he’s kept at a distance to show how much they care for him and how much he needs them. Here, Nick’s been pushed towards a brilliant psychopath, someone who’s essentially cured him of what he thinks he wants in a partner because there’s no way out of what she wants. It’s cruel stuff, but I can’t say it’s not riveting.

*Which is why I don’t buy this as misogynistic. Amy is hardly representative of all women in this film, given how sympathetic Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens (both excellent) are compared to everyone else, and any problem Affleck has with women “because of Amy” is just that: his problem.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.