October 23, 2014

VIFF 2014: 'Listen Up Philip' – A Real Piece of Work

Jason Schwartzman | Listen Up Philip

Listen Up Philip is in many ways the ultimate film for writers, particularly entitled, academically minded asshole ones with a healthy dose of literary arrogance. Filmmaker Alex Ross Perry crafts Jason Schwartzman as the perfect portrait of a narcissistic novelist, incapable of change, who uses people and feeds on destructive relationships. Perry's distinctive voice is so confident and authoritative with a vintage sheen, shot on 16mm film with handheld cameras and devoid of any modern technology, in its timeless poeticism.

It's refreshing how Listen Up Philip thoughtfully picks apart the successful writer's life with such a specific tone and voice in a purely novelistic approach. Perry and Schwartzman use every literary and storytelling device from an all-knowing voiceover by Eric Bogosian, shifts in narration, and allusions to take down the toxic narcissism and talent of its characters. It's a remarkable achievement of writing, acting, and direction in a pleasing package of emotional wreckage reminiscent of a coming of age novel.

Schwartzman as the titular Philip Lewis Friedman (even his name is pompous) sheds his usual, natural, likeable charm quite easily to manifest a monstrous, insufferable yet utterly identifiable jerk of an author. His performance, full of entitlement and contempt, is well echoed by his mentor Jonathan Pryce (an obvious Philip Roth analogue) as an older, accomplished writer who narcissistically sees his young self in Philip. We see how his successful career has cost his any amount of accompaniment or emotional attachment including a fractured relationship with his troubled daughter (Krysten Ritter) as he tries justify his own destructive life decisions through Philip.

All these characters and interactions inform the textured story of Philip's dysfunctional relationship with his long suffering girlfriend, Ashley, a successful photographer and artist in her own right, played excellently by Elisabeth Moss. She's delightful in her emotional honesty and nuanced portrayal of a supportive yet realistic romantic partner with her own agency, dynamic story arc (taking over the film's narrative in the second act), and sense of longing.

Perry's sprawling, witty exploration of the New York literary and academic scene is sublime in its knowing dissection of relationships and drama. What should be an annoying and pretentious tale of unsympathetic intellectuals, is instead, a thoughtful, universal look at the writing process and how tortured artists sacrifice their relationships in order to craft their work through isolation and loneliness. Listen Up Philip is novelistically and cinematically sublime in every sense of the written word.

Listen Up Philip screened at the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.

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