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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