Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: Listen Up Philip

Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is one of those people who simply cannot, or refuses to, be happy. We meet the young novelist in the run-up to the publication of his second novel. Praise makes him nauseous, yet he has no qualms to express the sky-high opinion he holds of himself. A decision to be uniformly honest is brutally respected. Upon hearing about the suicide of a rival wordsmith, whom he was supposed to interview, he sighs: "Oh no! I'm glad he's dead and all, but final interviews are hard to get." 

His misery is contagious, as he offends and alienates everyone around him. The primary sufferer is his girlfriend Ashley (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss). Philip shows little interest in her successful career as a fashion photographer and soon abandons her in order to retrieve his creative mojo. Ike Zimmerman (a gloriously bearded Jonathan Pryce), a legendary author, has adopted Philip as a mentee and invited him to his countryside retreat away from the distractions of the big city..    

Listen Up Philip's biggest strength is its depiction of the "writer's condition." Writer-director Alex Ross Perry does really well to capture how Philip simultaneously feels superior and inferior to everyone else. Relative success has given him cruelty and arrogance, but his insecurities and anxieties shine through as he is unable to access or express any form of emotion. His situation doesn't really improve either. In Ike, we see Philip's future: an older, equally bitter, version of the same character. Creative accomplishment has taken its toll on the two men. The film, unlike its protagonist, meanwhile has not forgotten about Ashley. In the most positive section of the story, she cleanses herself of the negativity left behind by the departing boyfriend.

Perry shot Philip on Super 16 film stock, which gives the movie a timeless, old-school look. The rough, grainy aesthetic really pays off. The cinematography does however scream indie-cinema a bit too loudly at times. He frequently uses handheld cameras and gets distractingly close to his actors' faces. The lack of character development furthermore tested my patience slightly, as Philip and Ike are not exactly pleasant company. This does not take away from the film's considerable successes. The script is witty and the performances are excellent. It is particularly pleasant to see Jonathan Pryce enjoy himself in a role that matches his talent once again. Listen Up Philip will not make you fall in love with its characters, but you will love to hate them.

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