Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up, Philip is verbally exuberant, utterly talkative — but never boring
It’s very hard to like Philip. I mean he’s narcissistic beyond belief, self-centred, misanthropic to the extreme, self-destructive and destructive to others, totally out of touch with his feelings, as grouchy as a vicious old man, and treats others like objects. For that matter, he treats himself like an object too. You don’t want to hang out with him because he’s the sort of person who thinks things are always bad, it’s just that you have different levels of bad. To top of it all, he’s not seductive, or even remotely good looking, or sexy in any sort of way. And don’t get me started on how he dresses. Come to think of it, it’s impossible to like Philip.
Which makes you wonder what his girlfriends see in him other than he’s a young published author on the rise. Since he’s also self-loathing, he doesn’t give himself enough credit, but it seems he’s really good and not just a fad. Perhaps he’s the type of guy who at first shows care and affection for his object of desire, treats it accordingly, and once he’s got it for sure, then the abuse begins. Maybe he’s good in bed — people who repress their feelings so deep tend to be sexually voracious — but how long can that pay off? OK, don’t answer that. In any case, he doesn’t look like Casanova. Not by a long shot.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Locarno, Listen Up, Philip, the third outing by Alex Ross Perry (Impolex, The Color Wheel), features Jason Schwartzman playing Philip to obnoxious perfection together with Elisabeth Moss beautifully playing his photographer girlfriend, who’s cute, caring, and affectionate. There’s also Jonathan Pryce, marvelously filling in the shoes of Ike Zimmerman, an antisocial and revered older writer who digs his work and eventually befriends him. Like Philip, Ike also destroys his own life and those of his loved ones — mainly that of his daughter Melanie, played to aching precision by Krysten Ritter. And there are other women who will pop up along the way, all of them first smitten or disgusted by Philip. Then, they sort of like him. And in the very end, they are just plainly sick of him.
Listen Up Philip is verbally exuberant, utterly talkative, but never boring at that. Not in the least. In fact, it’s a feast of carefully chosen words, telling expressions, very snappy one-liners, and rapid fired dialogue that often mirrors the creative writing games of sophisticate authors — add to that an assured, sometimes sardonic voice-over narration by Eric Bogosian. Yes, of course, you’re thinking of Woody Allen and perhaps of Richard Linklater as well. Personally, the dialogue here may have a sense rhythm and musicality akin to that of Linkater’s, but it has none of its sentimental luminosity, melancholy or hope. As for Allen, well, yes, you’d be right and not only in how the dialogue is written and spoken, but also in much of its dark humour and negativism.
Furthermore, not even 10 seconds into the film you’ll be reminded of Husband and Wives’ faux cinema verité style, with its hectic hand held camera following the characters up and close to the point of being right under their noses with invasive close-ups. Better said, you have a long and agile string of close ups where the continuous bouncing of shots and reaction shots make you feel you’re watching a ping pong game. Incredibly enough, this goes on, to a larger or lesser degree, for the whole 108 minutes the film lasts, and the pace does not drag at all ever. Talk about great editing.
And just like Listen Up, Philip’s cinematographer Sean Price Williams has explicitly acknowledged the influence of Husband and Wives in his own camerawork, Alex Ross Perry himself could say that the likes of Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, and John Cassavetes (think Faces, mainly) have influenced his own personal universe. Which in a sense is true and then it’s not.
Because the many narrative games, the twists and turns in the conversations, the scenes that end abruptly and start even more abruptly, or the use of a voice over that stands in for dialogue, are legitimate plays that he uses in similar ways to how these grand filmmakers did, but nonetheless always searching and finding his own path. In short: Listen Up, Philip is not derivative. It’s accumulative, creative, and personal.
Analizando a Philip / Listen Up, Philip (US, 2014) Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry. With Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce. Cinematography Sean Price Williams. Production design: Scott Kuzio. Editing: Robert Greene. Music: Keegan DeWitt. Running time: 108 minutes.