Writers are a curious bunch, all drawing influences from every aspect of life. Some write for fun, others because they feel it’s their purpose to. Some write happy tales about life, others reflect on the reality of the world we live in and its gruesome effects. Either way, you can get a good enough idea on who you’re reading based on their outlooks on life and some of those writers can come across as boring, or generally unlikable. In terms of those latter writers, that’s definitely the case here.
Living in New York means many different things for its citizens, but for Philip (Jason Schwartzman) it’s home and the place where he achieved some form of literary merit. Now onto his second novel, which is receiving many accolades, Philip is getting a bit big for his britches and it’s affecting the people around him. He’s short with his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) and believes himself to be on a different wavelength. Attachment and affinity are tough concepts for Philip, making him all the more socially awkward and unlikable.
After meeting with Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), one of his biggest idols, Philip realizes that he needs to escape the city and join Ike in his summer home upstate, where he can write in peace. The two men have much in common and their disdain for personal friendships makes them as close to friends as they’ve ever had. When Philip begins teaching at a college, he’s even more unlikable and he questions what he’s doing with his life. He’s a lonely and miserable young man, but he’s also a genius and talented one too. He can’t have it all and unfortunately, often sides with genius and loneliness. How will he cope with all this and can he fit in with society?
Listen Up Philip is an extremely hard film to care for and enjoy, because the characters don’t even care about or enjoy anything either. Though the film totes an impressive cast and proudly beats its proud chest when it comes to intelligent writing, there’s an overwhelming disconnect that had me feeling distant from everything. It wanders, it willows, and it sucks any life right out of you, all in the name of exploring one man’s depressing lifestyle. Perhaps this film is itself a metaphor, if so it’s a pretty crappy one.
Jason Schwartzman’s misanthropic character is holistically unlikable and completely detached from everything, yet he does such a great job at playing the part. The character is annoying, but Schwartzman plays the part with a brilliant excellence, chopping down any and everything in his path. His delivery is what often elicits laughter from this film, as he’s spot on with insults and makes mince meat of anyone who attempts to grow close to him. His judgement of humans as a whole and as individuals makes sense on some insane level and it’s all the more hilarious how he responds to people and events that transpire.
Elisabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce both get a ton of great dialogue and some scene stealing moments, in which we get to see their true brilliance emerge. Krysten Ritter also gets some of the film’s more emotional scenes and though she’s the most underwritten, she almost has the greatest impact. As a writer, Alex Ross Perry shows an extraordinary amount of potential, as his blend of real-world truths and intelligent banter makes for some exhilarating scenes. There’s a very academic atmosphere that surrounds everything and it’s certainly a high-minded film, whether that’s a good thing or not.
As a director, Alex Ross Perry channels Woody Allen in more than a few ways. Narratively, the narration and gloomy outlook on life is almost identical. Much like Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, Listen Up Philip features a misanthropic character who thinks the world of himself and cares for no one, except Allen did a much better job of creating amusing and at least semi-likable. Perry’s character’s are all on the surface and we never get to care for them, save for Moss’ character. Perry doesn’t say much within the film’s almost two-hour runtime that he doesn’t already state in the beginning.
Everything in this film becomes repetitive and any semblance of a story is thrown out the window. The characters distaste for themselves and for anyone else is obnoxious and everyone grows on your nerves quite quickly. I understand that we’re viewing life from a very specific lens, but there could have been something to enjoy here. Instead, we’re left with momentary glimpses of what could be joy, squandered by depressing writing and outlooks on life. The writing is smart, but that doesn’t mean the reasoning is sound. There’s no excuse for these characters to be morose and it didn’t feel natural that they all resented the world.
Listen Up Philip is an excellent display of writing, while simultaneously being a great display of what not to do in a film. It has some complexity with its characters and their motivations, but the idea of isolation and general depression takes over and never relinquishes control. So, as a member of the audience watching this film, you start to get depressed as nothing even slightly happy ever happens. Jason Schwartzmen, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, and Krysten Ritter all have shining moments, but Perry’s writing leads them astray. Perry has talent, he just needs to learn how to utilize it.
Listen Up Philip Trailer