by Sam Fragoso
After two critically adored novels, success has hardened Philip’s heart and calcified any remaining slivers of decency that may have once existed. As a result, “notability” has turned him into an insufferable, self-involved and repulsive egotist, interested only in his writing and the potential acclaim that may follow. At first glance it doesn’t appear that Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is fraught with internal pain, but it is there. Underneath the narcissistic veneer is a man who neither understands himself nor the world he lives in, thus making it impossible for Philip to emotionally connect with anyone or anything. This recent bout of despondency propels him out of the sonically assaultive milieu that is New York City and into an idyllic country home, away from his photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), where he can begin working on his next novel.
This is the concise, swiftly constructed setup of Listen Up Philip, the acidic, sardonic and transcendent third film from emerging writer/director Alex Ross Perry.
In true triptych form, what follow are three concurrent narratives that seamlessly dovetail into one another when appropriate. This isn’t Hereafter or Crash, where characters serendipitously enter each other’s lives because it’s cinematic or convenient. When not focusing on Philip’s existential dread and emotional ineptitude, Perry delivers the character of Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) – a similarly disillusioned, if much older author whom Philip idolizes all out of proportion.
Uninterested in being alone, Ike invites Philip to stay and work with him at his aforementioned estate. When Ike’s disapproving daughter (Krysten Ritter) isn’t around, the two feed off each other’s nastiness and negativity. They swap stories about the philistines that have attempted to derail their career, the women who have drove them mad and the agents who have fucked them over. Well, at least Ike does. Philip listens, eagerly awaiting the day in which he too can impact and influence an impressionable young writer.
But Listen Up Philip doesn’t get mired in unrelenting antagonism. While the film is a dark, dire portrait of self-destruction, the movie shows a tremendous amount of empathy for these characters. By all logic, no one should ever sympathize with Philip – a man who redefines what it mean to be an asshole. And yet, it’s hard not to care about what happens to him.
To counter Ike and Philip, the movie shifts its attention to Ashley. Initially she’s feeling the natural pangs that accompany a break-up. Philip has left her astray in the middle of a New York City summer – where romance is perpetually afoot. No matter, it doesn’t take long until Ashley experiences a type of rebirth. After years of being in this unhealthy relationship, she is finally reclaiming her independence. She purchases a cat to remedy the loneliness, rides her bike, spends times with friends, revisits past loves and advances her photography career. The realization that she’s better off without Philip comes quicker than she anticipated. Most movies shy away from this type of epiphany, that one could potentially be happier without their significant others around. “Distance makes the heart grow fonder,” we often hear. But, Ashley truly is a healthier person without Philip in her life. However, the most saddening idea is that perhaps everyone is better off without him, leaving Philip where he seemingly longs to be: alone.
Shot on 16mm and employing the type of intimate handheld camerawork seen in Husbands and Wives, Perry, at age 30, presents a level of relational and emotional maturity unfounded in contemporary cinema. With the narrator (Eric Bogosian) giving the film an audiobook texture, Listen Up Philip explores the terrifying and familiar concept of giving yourself to someone else. And for a brief moment in time, Philip does just that. Whether it’s with Ashley or Yvette (a Parisian coworker he meets at the college he partially teaches at), his fate remains the same.
Often times we optimistically propagate the idea that everyone deserves (and will find) love. We say this, I think, because it’s a comforting notion – a theory that provides a safety net, assuring us that no matter what happens in our lives, someone will be out there to catch us. Listen Up Philip, in ways that are both modest and profound, seems to suggest that such a foolish conceit is just that: foolish.
The omniscient narrator cuts for one last poetically tragic line: “Nothing lasts forever … and we both know hearts can change.” It’s in this tender moment that another truth crystalizes: everything is indeed ephemeral and many hearts do often change. But in the case of Philip Lewis Friedman, it seems his heart will forever remain a mystery, “even to himself.”
The Upside: Jazz quintet score (plus The Supremes); actors delivering career-best performance; Perry’s assured direction
The Downside: We want more time with these terrible people
On the side: IT’S SHOT ON FILM! GLORIOUS FILM!