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A melancholic web of creative and emotional drought, Listen Up Philip explores the ways in which one man’s actions can drastically affect the lives around him. Structured like the monumental works of Thomas Pynchon, Alex Ross Perry’s film aimlessly follows a group interrelated people as they interact with the titular Philip (Jason Schwartzman) on his quest for literary recognition. The audience receives most of the puzzle in fragments; each character study cluing us in to the more complex whole.
Philip Lewis Friedman is about to release his second novel. A neurotic and completely self-involved narcissist, Philip is far more concerned with his authorial legend than the languid relationships and his acerbic personality is slowly dissolving. A narrator (Eric Bogosian) addresses background essentials, cluing the audience into the details necessary to fully flesh out the intricacies of Perry’s fictional world. Philip shuns his novel’s promotional tour in favor of the familiar comforts provided by an unsettling emotional despondency. Meeting iconic American writer, Ike Zimmerman (a brilliantly loathsome performance from Jonathan Price), Philip is offered respite in Zimmerman’s country home – a means to escape the city’s ever-encroaching, and noisy, sadness. A weekend trip to the upstate New York cottage turns into an indefinite stay, much to the chagrin of Philip’s girlfriend of three years, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). As Philip struggles to get out of his own head, Ashley’s life crumbles in his absence, and Zimmerman’s creative slump is temporarily alleviated. The narrator leads the audience from character to character, intimately deconstructing the lives of each, as patterns of spite, indifference and ennui begin to take over their lives.
Writer/director Alex Ross Perry has crafted much more so a progression of mood rather than a string of narratively relevant plot points. There is undoubtedly a beginning, middle, and end to the story, yet Perry is entirely unconcerned with plot. While not indicative of the absence of story, Perry’s film reveals its ending within the first third of the picture. Knowing what will become of Philip is an afterthought, as we are shown what he is to become; it is the how and why that concern Perry.
Perry’s camera floats, quivering as it captures the mood of a specific scene. Thrust into the faces of his actors, and withdrawn as if a voyeur, Perry concocts a perfect sense of both claustrophobic anxiety, and abject isolation. Placed solidly for scenes requiring purposeful level-headedness, and following intently, bobbing with the frenetic movements of the operator and actors for those more firmly based in emotional outbursts and bickering. Perry is able to deliver an unquantifiable sadness through the use of light and camera placement. Jump cutting from a comparatively joyful handheld, warm light emanating from the images and the characters that inhabit the frame, to a drastically-opposed stillness, shot gray and lifeless, depict wild mood swings from short-lived highs to marked lows.
Jason Schwartzman is purely detestable as Philip. Not since his performance in Slackers has Schwartzman been so incredibly unlikable. Beyond selfish and narcissistic, Philip is intentionally mean to those around him in order to bolster his image, and his own self worth. Fame has had a profound effect on Philip whose interests have become singular – being a writer that everyone reveres for being a writer. Jonathan Price is Philips aged proxy, a self-proclaimed literary hero, comfortably wealthy and emotionally numb. Price’s Zimmerman has no limits to his egocentrism, from denying Philip an equally-aged scotch, to his gross mistreatment of his daughter (an equally powerful performance from Krysten Ritter). Price is wonderful as the hollow old man, the same melancholia stare as the youthful Philip, with a glazed-over ignorance only a lifetime of spite can bring.
Listen Up Philip is a moody, hate-inspiring examination of the overwhelming power of creative genius. An all consuming force able to swing wildly from productive effervescence to fleeting emptiness, creativity is the primary subject of Perry’s film, Philip and Zimmerman’s addictive relationship to which is merely a side note.