The Good: Performances, Direction
The Bad: Oppressive mood, Unlikable characters, Boring plot
The Basics: When young, angry, and arrogant author Philip Friedman goes away to his idol’s cabin, he finds his plans disrupted by the author’s daughter, who is also living there.
As the movie cycle moves toward pure Oscar Pandering Season, I am enjoying catching up on some indie cinema. Independent cinema reminds us that art is still alive in the film world and that there are whole groups of actors who do not care about being part of the latest blockbuster that the studios are churning out. While independent and artistic cinema is usually associated with intellect, experimentation and mood, I have begun to associate independent cinema with misery. Seriously; it seems like virtually every writer and writer-director who manages to get an independent film made with recognizable actors features characters who are miserable assholes that are impossible to empathize with.
Listen Up Philip is one such film. Packed with an amazing cast, Listen Up Philip is almost immediately off-putting and esoteric. I cannot recall a film of late where it was so difficult for me to be inspired to watch past the first fifteen minutes, which is quite a feat when one considers that Jonathan Pryce (whose works I generally love) appears in that first quarter-hour of the film. But, the tight focus on Jason Schwartzman’s isolated, unlikable character and the droning voiceovers make Listen Up Philip very inaccessible.
Philip Friedman is an author living and working in New York City, whose second novel has just been published. He has a meeting with an ex-girlfriend, whom he tells off (after being kept waiting, he builds to a rage that allows him to finally articulate how her lack of belief in him makes him feel). The feelings of empowerment that brings him inspires him to tell off his old college roommate and to go out with a photographer who has interest in him now that he has a second novel on the market. After meeting with renowned author Ike Zimmerman, Philip allows magazine feature writer Josh Fawn to shadow him . . . until he learns that Josh had a prior relationship with his girlfriend, Ashley. Ashley is feeling distance from Philip and when Philip has the chance to leave the City for a retreat with Ike for most of the summer, Ashley is left feeling pretty much dumped by the author. Ike takes Philip away and seems to have a genuine interest in helping him develop as a writer and a human being.
When Ike goes away, his daughter Melanie pops up and tries to keep Philip at arm’s length. To help get Philip out of the house, Ike helps Philip get a position as an adjunct professor at Lambert College, which Philip does not actually appreciate. Returning to the City, Philip breaks up with Ashley (who promptly sells off the things he leaves behind, gets depressed, engages in risk behaviors and buys a cat for companionship). Ashley starts to get along well-enough without Philip and she reconnects with an ex-boyfriend. Philip finds himself detached from all semblances of his prior life and stagnates while those he encounters start living again by getting away from him.
Listen Up Philip is tough to call well-written or even interesting. The film has an appropriately high level of diction given how intelligent the characters are supposed to be. But the film is packed with clichés and just because the movie acknowledges that Philip is the walking cliché of the successful, but disenfranchised, young author does not make it less of a cliché. Philip is on the verge of being genuinely successful, so he pushes back against the establishment that is about to “make” him under the guise of artistic integrity. The film is loaded with Philip acting depressed and constantly self-deprecating. This mood becomes oppressive, though. Intelligence is becoming synonymous with anhedonia in U.S. culture and that is both unfortunate and anything but entertaining to watch. Listen Up Philip is like Smart People (reviewed here!) without a collection of remotely entertaining characters.
Alex Ross Perry wrote and directed Listen Up Philip and if this is indicative of his work and style, he is in no danger of becoming the next Wes Anderson. Anderson has managed to make miserable characters charming, interesting to watch and entertaining in films like The Royal Tenenbaums (reviewed here!). Perry’s work lacks that spark and when the film diverges to stick with Ashley, the viewer is sucked into an unwatchable cinematic morass. One miserable artist treating people in an off-putting manner is more than enough for one film; two seems like an indulgence of unhappiness that the viewer is supposed to get excited about and praise as wonderful. Listen Up Philip is not wonderful; it’s an invitation to spend almost two hours with people who one would not want to spend five minutes with.
What saves Listen Up Philip from the lowest possible ratings is the acting and direction. Alex Ross Perry may have written utterly unlikable, miserable characters, but he captures those embodying them quite well. For all of the problems with the section of Listen Up Philip that focuses on Ashley, Perry manages to get some great shots of actress Elisabeth Moss performing amazingly well. Moss is able to express misery without a word, looking at the camera and reacting to lines delivered off screen with nervousness and sorrow. Alex Ross Perry gets a compelling performance out of Elisabeth Moss and if Ashley were only more interesting, this would be one of Moss’s best roles ever.
Jason Schwartzman leads the cast of Listen Up Philip very well. He plays the part of Philip with such convincing detachment that he is almost unwatchable. Schwartzman has played nice guys in other roles and the qualities that made those roles memorable or enjoyable to watch is completely absent from his performance of Philip. In a similar fashion, Krysten Ritter almost always seems to play emotionally-strong, articulate, empowered women and her part of Melanie is very different. More overtly hurt, Melanie offers Ritter the chance to play a different style of character than some of her more familiar roles. Unfortunately, her part is minimized in the film and as much as I was excited to see her play a greater emotional range, I was equally excited to see her wearing a shirt identical to one I once owned. Ritter and Pryce play off each other well.
Even Jonathan Pryce is robbed of the charismatic spark that usually makes his characters watchable and intriguing. Like Ritter, that shows Pryce’s range, even if it is unpleasant to watch.
Despite the quality of the performances, Listen Up Philip is anything but watchable, compelling or worth devoting one’s time to.
For other works with Wai Ching Ho, please visit my reviews of:
Iron Fist - Season 1
".380" - Daredevil
Daredevil - Season 1
Orange Is The New Black - Season 3
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Keeping The Faith2.5/10
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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