Listen Up Philip

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 17, 2014

Jason Schwartzman stars in 'Listen Up Philip'
Jason Schwartzman stars in 'Listen Up Philip'  (Source:Tribeca Film)

Writer-director Alex Ross Perry brings a deadpan, deadly dry sense of humor to his newest project, "Listen Up Philip."

This is a film less concerned with shape than with ironic, desolate elaboration, but the outlines of a story are there: A young novelist, the titular Philip (Jason Schwartzman, perfectly cast), makes friends with... or rather, is taken under the wing of... a once successful, now half-obscure writer named Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Ike is full of advice to offer his younger counterpart (whom his daughter, Melanie -- played by Krysten Ritter -- dismissively refers to as his "protg"), and while much of that wisdom is astringent, one especially helpful tidbit is the suggestion that Philip get away from the city's noise and distraction and seek some peace and refuge in the country. Ike himself having just such a rural retreat, Philip is happy to take Ike's advice and moves in for a few months.

It's a much-needed break from the detritus of Philip's many failed, and failing, relationships, including the breakup in progress with longtime girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), a photographer whose success sparks both familiar feelings of envy and unaccustomed pride in Philip. This is a young man, after all, who doesn't do well with social graces; he's impatient, vitriolic, insecure, arrogant, and generally riddled with anxieties -- which is, of course, part of the film's carefully contrived joke: Everyone here is a stereotype, but Ross invests them with dimension and puts them through unexpected paces.

That includes the way everyone talks to each other, which is unvarnished and yet eloquent -- a stylistic tic that winks at the novelistic form, much as the film's meanderings are a sly, if slightly sarcastic, tip of the hat to modern literary tastes that embrace the circuitous and unregimented. At the same time there's a careful orchestration, and a modulation, in this film's episodes, and a sting lurking in this messy narrative: One of the first critiques-cum-sage nuggets that Ike imparts to Philip is to avoid cultivating an image that he is "lackadaisical and disorganized," because to do so would be a mistake that would haunt him later on.

What haunts Ike -- and threatens to devour Philip -- is a reflexive need for self-destruction that masquerades as artistic temperament. The portrait of an artist as humanly inadequate is hardly a new trope, but it's done here with such inky black humor and sharp-edged intelligence that it's easy to thrill anew to the theme. At its best, "Listen Up Philip" captures moments that are simultaneously humiliating to witness, ghastly and yet funny, and bloodlessly accurate -- the sort of thing that Woody Allen once made his stock in trade. Those moments of inspiration don't characterize this film, but they do provide a benchmark that it lives up to.

What sets this movie apart from other recent features about elder writers and the discombobulated youngsters that fall into their orbits (such as "Starting Out in the Evening" or "Winter Passing") is Ross' willingness to allow the material to stretch and breathe. "Listen Up Philip" runs to two and a half hours; it needs the extra time to allow its characters to complete their emotional, professional, and geographic peregrinations. Ross is also willing to engage in a kind of playfulness, providing a narration (voiced by Eric Bogosian) that acts like a writer's third-person prose, setting out inner conflicts and external situations as though the story were taking place on the page instead of the screen. We're invited to laugh at, not with, these people; the trick is to keep them sympathetic, and by virtue of their own self-flagellating honesty it's a trick they pull off.

Pair this feature with another opening this week -- "Whiplash" -- and you've got a double feature that probes the sticky side of creativity. Is genius forged from hostility? Is invention mothered by misanthropy and distrust, or perhaps fed by betrayal? "Whiplash" would assent to this view with a growl; "Listen Up Philip," too, seemingly agrees, but in this case it's with the whimper of the long-suffering straight man, the guy who's the living punch line to a serrated existential joke.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.