Listen Up Phillip Review
Trying to describe Listen Up Phillip to an inquisitive soul will in all likelihood end up with a mention of Woody Allen and a mention of Wes Anderson. To some that combination of cinematic titans is a flattering endorsement, to just as many it will be a damnation of the film as pretentious, wordy, self-indulgent tosh. My foot is firmly planted in the latter for the most part, but, completely against my preconceptions, Listen Up Phillip struck me as an oddly endearing dose of acerbic wit and pitch black humour. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that smarmy, sarcastic, cynical mate we all have- a bit of a dick, but you can’t help but admire his barbed tongue.
Jason Schwartzman lives up to his typecast billing as Philip Lewis Friedman, a young author, who despite having a reasonably well regarded first novel under his belt, can’t help but indulge his inner pessimist. Even though he’s got a second book on the way and a supportive girlfriend in Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, Phillip is increasingly disillusioned with his daily existence and those around him. At the peak of his apathy he gets the chance to meet his literary hero, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who offers him a place in his country retreat to aid his creative process.
You could lump Phillip into the very vague notion of the antihero, but that’s far too kind on a frankly very dislikeable protagonist. The film opens with Phillip lambasting the ghosts of his past. The unlucky recipients of Phillip’s new found confidence and un-bottled arrogance are his ex-girlfriend and old classmate, the latter’s reveal as being in a wheelchair only adds to the mounting consensus that Phillip’s isn’t a particularly nice bloke. Now he’s found success as an author, Phillip wallows in self-pity, arrogance, self-importance and all round narcissism. He makes Birdman look magnanimous.
For the film to work Phillip needs some redeeming qualities for the audience to latch on to. Thankfully director Alex Ross Perry obliges and arms him with a darkly dry sense of humour. When his colleague asks him whether he only wants to be thought of as a talented writer and not as a real person, his only response is a grin and an affirmative yes. Phillip has been overtaken by fame and the notion of the artist has gone straight to his head. The irony is that Phillip’s success amounts too little more than an inclusion on the ‘35 under 35’ issue of the New York Literary Review, an honour he derides when he laments “nobody reads that anymore”.
The joy of Phillip as a character is in that he’s a truly absurd paradox; he’s more worried about his artistic image than his artistic output. He sabotages himself by vehemently refusing to do publicity for his new novel, ignores a student who praises his work and picks up a groupie only to berate her for being gauche in public. This combination of sharp wit, self-deprecation and tragic delusion are an engrossing mix.
Phillip’s self-fulfilling plight is aided by his supporting cast, without them he’d just be a very tedious little man. Jonathan Pryce is magnetic as cankerous heavyweight author Ike Zimmerman. Pryce exists as more than just another temperamental artist falling out the page. His putdowns are more refined and blasé than Phillip, while his personal life is even more dysfunctional than his disciple’s. Despite Zimmerman’s intense self-loathing and unhappiness, Phillip can’t help but admire his revered mentor and long to replicate him, perhaps this is the price (Pryce) of artistic purity.
On the other side of the spectrum are the slightly sounder of mind; women. Phillip’s girlfriend Ashley (Moss) is afforded the biggest chunk of story after the two attention grabbing leads. Unfortunately she’s not nearly as interesting as her male counterparts meaning her extended solo sequence is a lull. Ike’s daughter Melanie Zimmerman (Krysten Ritter) is fiery antidote to Ashley’s affableness. The fractured Zimmerman household could have been a whole film in itself. The heated exchanges between father and daughter are the film’s only real sources of emotional grit.
Director Perry firmly marks his stylistic territory with Listen Up Phillip. While the tight, caustic script loaded with dead pan laughs and a pathetically tragic hero are unquestionably lifted from Woody Allen’s musty wardrobe, Listen Up Phillip has its own very retro-chic cool to it. The entire film glows a musty yellow while a smooth jazzy score keeps up a neo-noir backbeat. The book covers that flash across the screen are adorned with psychedelic shapes and abstract geometrical patterns in that 60s pallet of greens, browns and oranges. Even the redbrick University Phillip ends up in evokes an old school Ivy League aura. Perry has a clear vision for his film and executes it wonderfully. The icing on top is the third person narration that implores the film to unfold like a book.
For the most part, the film is shot in erratic handheld close ups, the camera allowed to roam unshackled in an attempt to dive into the minds and inner turmoil that lie ahead. Being a character driven story the close ups are understandable; however the scatty camera movements are slightly nauseating and distracting after a while.
The film’s other main disappointment is its bold, but ultimately rambling conclusion. There’s no redemption, no revelation and progression in any of the characters from start to finish. In the end we find Phillip struggling against the tide and consensus even bitterer than the gleefully boasting narcissist we met two hours before. Perry sticks to his guns and refuses to let Phillip grow out of himself, yet there’s only so much of his relentless ego and indulgence one film goer can endure.
7.5/10- Listen up Viewers