Alex Ross Perry’s first feature to hit Australian cinemas, Listen Up Philip, moves in misdirection; its first fifteen minutes set up an acerbic yet tiresome character study, Jason Schwartzman relishing his most arrogant character yet in Philip Lewis Friedman, “notable” under-35 novelist self-sabotaging the release of his second book. He talks (and lives) in affectation, his sense of superiority an assumed persona, aping his notions of the ‘great American novelist.’ These undesirable characteristics are championed by Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a Philip Roth-esque figure who becomes both a creative and behavioral mentor to Philip; as Ike isolated his only daughter (the underused and fantastic Krysten Ritter), so too does Philip neglect his girlfriend Ashley (the ever-brilliant Elisabeth Moss). As the film progresses, though, it shifts from Philip’s navel-gazing to a freewheeling look at relationships in general, cleverly skewering the idea of artistic genius in the process.
We’ve seen Schwartzman play a shade of Philip before — imbued with naiveté as Rushmore‘s Max Fischer, with more confidence and slime as Gideon Graves in Scott Pilgrim — but of more interest is a role that is similar in construct yet veers off wildly in a different direction. In the HBO comedy Bored to Death, Schwartzman also played a novelist, a version of real-life author (and showrunner) Jonathan Ames, who moonlights as an amateur private eye after his long-term girlfriend leaves him. The literary link, that he got his ‘training’ from Chandler’s The Big Sleep, is the narrative hook for continued hijinks; the fact he’s a novelist is vastly less interesting than his adventures. In Philip, though, the literary grounding is everything for that character, sans his supposedly brilliant novels he’s just a shell of a person. Both he and Ike seek isolation and perceived success rather than anything tangible; Ike uses Philip as a “lapdog” to make him feel influential again, Philip uses Ike as confirmation of the life of a successful author. It’s a life that supposedly churns out successful books — Ike had won a National Book Award in his twenties, with a string of comebacks, revealed to us with perhaps the best fake book cover art since The Royal Tenenbaums. Despite success, both men are hollowed out, and in that sense it’s a foil to Inside Llewyn Davis, where failure is ever-present and we’re (for the most part) sympathetic to Llewyn. Even the voiceover in Philip, ably performed by actor and playwright Eric Bogosian, is an intentionally hollow creation; extrapolating on emotional harm with the same hifalutin distance Ike employs when dressing down his daughter.1 It’s never revealed exactly whose perspective the narration is from, though at one point it seems to (wrongfully) side with Philip in an argument with Ashley, raising the idea of Listen Up Philip being a nostalgic creation of its leading player.
Keegan DeWitt’s score apes the narrative sophistication-by-proxy that jazz brings to the films of Woody Allen, much like his work for Land Ho! perfectly evokes pop songs of the 1980s. Here the simple piano work and the familiar sounding trumpet line gives the film a lived-in feel, immersing us even further into the world of these characters. Robert Greene’s editing sees shots linger wonderfully, the conflict between our own contemplation of events and the characters’. One of the strongest elements in the film is Sean Price Williams’ gorgeous cinematography, inspired by both Cassavettes and Allen’s Husbands and Wives, and shot on Super 16mm. He has an uncanny ability to shoot faces, mainly Moss’, and the handheld work here is superb, as is the light which beautifully spills into the frame.
The narrative shift alluded to earlier sees Philip dropped out of his own narrative in two long sequences; Perry cites William Gaddis’ The Recognitions as the impetus for this, and though Philip isn’t anywhere near as postmodern as the novels that inspired it, its structural shift is a refreshing change from the caricatures-as-characters we so often spend time with in films of this ilk. The first of these digressive arcs is widely (and deservedly) praised as the strongest element of the film, as we follow Ashley and her efforts to reclaim her emotional independence after Philip’s abrupt departure to teach at an arts college. As we’ve seen recently in Mad Men and The One I Love, Moss is an incredibly compelling on-screen presence, and here is no exception, bringing an enormous amount of emotional depth with a mere glance. It helps that Philip almost always has his guard up, the contrast between his stone-faced passing through and Ashley’s intense self-doubt and concern works wonders. The non-linear nature of this sequence does tend to pull us out of its separation, a clumsy flashback to a scene of Philip and Ashley in a bar unnecessarily brings Philip back into view. For the most part, though, its separation from Philip’s parallel narrative, which follows, is a clever means through which to, temporarily, re-position Philip as a character. His isolation from us as viewers is mirrored in his isolation from human connection; we forget ourselves and start to pity him. Perry doesn’t let Philip off that easy, though.
Thankfully, unlike Assayas’ recent Clouds of Sils Maria, Perry doesn’t attempt to show us any of the supposedly great works of fiction in the film, we just see characters react to them. Its grounding in literature on the whole, though, is something of a smokescreen, the focus is on these insipid ‘literary’ characters rewarded for their separation from reality. The reward, though, is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be. When Philip complains about how he feels worse now he’s achieved success, Ike calls him a cliché, the irony here is that he, too, is a living cliché, a riff on a perceived novelistic type with his self-imposed isolation a lack of drive, not choice. This idea of success is a fight between the personal and the artistic; the novelists siding with the latter brings about a fantastic final punchline in voiceover.
Listen Up Philip easily draws comparisons to Allen and (W.) Anderson, but Noah Baumbach seems the narrative reference point. Temporal structure and an ‘affectation’ gag from Kicking & Screaming, the sardonic unlikable protagonist in Greenberg, the literature-as-fulfilment from The Squid and the Whale moved from background to foreground (“I’ve been asked to write a short story about photography” a particularly notable crossover). The film isn’t quite up to Baumbach’s level of wit — unfortunately, some of the jokes are strained, though that’s arguably Philip’s fault — and the time spent dwelling on Ike’s career (he of the second digressive arc) is much less interesting than either Ashley or Philip’s narratives; athough Pryce is given his best role in years, Zimmerman feel more of a construct. The real, surprising value in Perry’s film is how it totally moves to its own strange rhythm, gradually expanding in scope, its unfurling messiness bringing about a strange warmth. Philip might himself be loathsome and pitiful, but the story that bears his name is not.
Around the Staff: