Listen Up Philip (2014)
Written & Directed by Alex Perry Ross
Filmmaker Alex Ross Perry continued his interesting development with this marked improvement from The Color Wheel. Noam Baumbach and Wes Anderson’s influences are even more apparent here; however, Perry does manage to keep his picture from feeling derivative. Thematically, he’s approaching John Cassavettes territory without the earnestness and more overtly toxic male figure. Ross walks a tightrope where he can’t make his main character so unlikeable we lose all sympathy for him, and he does this by letting the narrative shift to different character’s perspectives throughout the story. The result is a picture I enjoyed quite a bit, helped by having seasoned actors in the roles.
Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzmann) is an author on the precipice of his sophomore novel’s publication. He’s marking the occasion by being incredibly shitty to people in his past who he believes doubted his talents. You would think such an event would make Philip happy about life but having this second book coming out only seems to make him dig deeper into his misanthropy. His relationship with his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) is crumbling a little every day, and he’s perfectly aware how much she is growing to despise him. Meanwhile, his publisher wants him to go on a book tour which he refuses. Instead, Philip buddies up with veteran writer & fellow curmudgeon Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) and spend the summer at his cabin to get away from the city. Of course, this doesn’t make Philip any happier. He eventually ends up teaching at a nearby university, where he continues being condescending as his relationship with Ashley falls apart long distance.
This is a hilarious comedy as long as you approach it knowing you are not supposed to like or admire almost any of these characters. If you are looking for a movie that features bland, happy people, you will not enjoy it. I, however, like movies about rotten people because it feels like a challenge on the part of the director and the audience. In reality, most people are pretty unlikeable to some degree in my experience, but we find things about them that keep us from becoming so totally disgusted by them. Through the dialogue & actions of Philip & Ike, we can tell these are extremely insecure men, especially when it comes to women. They have manufactured these authorial personalities as a way to cushion themselves to the utter despondence they have about being such unloveable pieces of shit.
At a certain point, we have to wonder why then even are writers. To some extent, it seems like they are just naturally talented with words but don’t really have a love of the craft. Not once does Philip appear to enjoy his career. The scenes where we glimpse him teaching college students are laughable as he has nothing to impart to them. When they ask him about specific aspects of writing, Philip responds that there really isn’t much that he can tell them and that most of them won’t write anything after they graduate and get jobs anyway. One of the confounding things about Philip is that for as rotten and horrible as he is, every once in a while, he does say something that is harshly true. This class of twenty-plus students simply aren’t all going to pursue writing after graduation.
One of the most gripping aspects of this film is are the texture & aesthetics. The picture is shot so that we have just a bit of grain on the film, and for some reason, that made it feel like picking up a piece of literature to me. There’s a jazz quartet providing the film’s score, which adds that bit more personality to the picture. The Wes Anderson-ian thing, in my opinion, is the covers shown for books that exist within the film’s universe. Teddy Blanks is the graphic designer on the movie, and he is masterful at manufacturing facsimile covers that span decades. Ike Zimmerman’s book covers feel precisely like the sort of dusty tomes you might pull out of the stacks of your library. Blanks obviously has an excellent eye for the publishing industry’s design trends for the last few decades, and it’s those little details that make the film so much better.
Listen Up Philip is certainly a grating film, but that is the intention. It isn’t easy to get through, even for someone like me who loves this sort of thing. That’s kind of the nature of centering your story around an unlikeable protagonist; there are moments where we would rather drift over to talk to someone else at the party. Ross tries to compensate by switching to chapters focused on Ike and Ashley, but the story is Philip’s, so we come back to him in the end. The movie feels incredibly literary and the type of thing that captures a certain angle of New York I personally enjoy. I think this would make an interesting pairing with Frances Ha, with both films sharing similar protagonists in that they are trying to figure out where they belong in this world. It would be a severe case of character whiplash as they possess drastically different personalities. It would make for a fun viewing and discussion afterward.