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'Listen Up Philip' Is Lean On Story, Long On Eccentricity

Tribeca Film
Jason Schwartzman as the title character in Listen Up Philip.

The new film Listen Up Philip is about a young writer who's thinking about success. I'm glad that the writers I know and love are nothing like the writers in this film. As this movie imagines them – and its director is also its writer – they are arrogant, self-serving, nasty, and blind to just about everything in life, especially themselves.

The film doesn't tell much of a story. The lead character, Philip (Jason Schwartzman) has a second novel coming out, which keeps him in his usual state of combined scared and abusive. The movie opens with Philip castigating an ex-girlfriend for being late for lunch. "You never believed in me," he complains. The charges Philip levels at the poor woman may be what people unload on each other during a breakup, but this affair has been over for several years.

Philip now lives with Ashley (Elisabeth Moss, from Mad Men), and he's already setting his sights on driving her away. He also tears into his agent and the photographer trying to take publicity photographs. Soon, Philip refuses to do any publicity work at all, and perhaps for the first time in human history, an audience may feel some sympathy for an agent.

At times, events in Listen Up Philip are tied together by a narrator (Eric Bogosian) who describes Philip's adventures in a flat voice and the kind of formal, elevated diction that radiates superiority, but not enough wit.

Besides various women and other friends, Philip encounters another youngish writer who dashes off pithy clichés and slides into his long black limousine that drives off leaving Philip alone and wondering on the street. Philip also meets an older writer who says that he has not written a single page within the confines of New York City, and unaware that not everyone has his money, he advises Philip to get a home for himself in the country. He then invites Philip to spend time at his own rural second home upstate.

Listen Up Philip can be a thoroughly annoying picture, but it's at the same time strangely fascinating. While Philip is morose and rude, the movie does a tantalizing dance between comedy and self-indulgence. The narrator may explain too much about what Philip is are thinking, but the film also leaves events blunt and unanalyzed, so that you wonder just who is this guy and why should anyone care.

Philip's self-involvement is a marvel to behold.

The movie sets up a world in which most conversation involves people telling each other off. Nobody suggests having an ice cream together; no one talks about the weather or the flowers, and certainly no character ever mentions having a good time or a good dinner or reading a good book. These characters spend their time evaluating each other – and pretty harshly. Still, and counter-intuitively, you get attached to it, maybe because you want to know what's beneath characters' surfaces, or maybe you're waiting for a chance to slap them.

Director Alex Ross Perry films in that clichéd style with too many extreme close-ups and a shaky hand-held camera. It makes the audience as uncentered as the characters. Heads and faces dominate the screen, so it's hard to discern any visual context. Yet the shooting style matches the rest of the film. It doesn't matter where these characters are because they probably only notice themselves anyway.

Philip, his friend Ike, the man with the country home, and others in the picture are writers, but aside from a few head-scratching book titles, you get no sense of what any of these people actually write. Philip's interests as a writer are simply not mentioned, other than the fact that the two books are novels and he has some short stories from his student days that aren't very good.

It's tempting to say that Listen Up Philip shows how New York life really is. Maybe. What's appealing in the movie is that in spite of the anger and the self-absorption of the people, the film has the nerve to be loudly, even joyously, eccentric.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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