There’s a famous quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Sometimes this saying is attributed to Elvis Costello, but just as often it’s noted that Costello doesn’t take credit for it. Regardless, the line sums up a smart opinion on the futility of approaching one art form with the tools of another. While the Greeks may have entirely disproved this with their ekphrastic poetry, Alex Ross Perry's latest film is the nail in the coffin. Listen Up Philip is undoubtedly a motion picture, but by playing with narration and structure, Perry makes an original statement on the written word, as well as the nature of the artist.
Film Society of Minneapolis/ Saint Paul
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Producers: Joshua Blum, Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, David Lowery, Katie Stern
Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Cinematographer: Sean Price Williams
Editor: Robert Greene
Music: Keegan DeWitt
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de la Baume, Jonathan Pryce, Jess Weixler, Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson
Premiere: January 20, 2014 — Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 17, 2014
US Distributor: Tribeca Film
Jason Schwartzman stars as the titular Philip, a thirtysomething boy-man who hopes to follow his hit debut novel with a hit sophomore novel. Only, he can’t find a way to do that properly. Does promoting his book mean sacrificing artistic integrity? Is he too successful for his photographer girlfriend Ashley (played by Elisabeth Moss)? Is she too successful for him? How can he possibly get any writing done in the bustling city? Should he teach?
Luckily, Philip Roth-esque literary hero Ike Zimmerman (the magnificently slimy Jonathan Pryce) takes a liking to Philip and wants to tell him the answers to all of those questions. He invites Philip to join him at his upstate country home, where he can find the space and peace of mind to write. Without a second thought, Philip leaves Ashley in the city and heads to the woods.
Schwartzman has made a career out of playing assholes, but in Listen Up Philip he brings a heretofore unseen relentless bitterness. Philip is just horrible, and that Schwartzman is able to play this hollow man so deeply, darkly, and comically is a testament to his talent. Philip is a narcissist who seems one mirror away from being a total sociopath. He lives his life to win, and often does, and yet he is a loser.
Once in the cabin with his mentor, Philip takes every piece of advice offered (and many, many pieces of advice are offered). Even when there are signs (and by signs I mean, like, neon flashing ones) that Ike is an imperfect man, Philip ignores them. Again and again, he finds selfishness rewarded and so continues to live selfishly.
Throughout the film, we hear book-like narration (uttered by Eric Bogosian). At first, this aspect is intriguing for how it frames the story as a blur of fact and fiction, how it shows that much of storytelling is culled from real life experiences, and how the film’s story could perhaps be a retelling sprouted from Philip’s brain. As the film progresses, the narration becomes an irritating but thematically significant piece of the film: instead of pushing the story forward, it becomes a substitute for emotion. We see shots of the characters living their lives and are told how they feel about it instead of seeing the change (or stasis) on their faces or in their words. Much like how Philip hides behind his work and persona, the film begins to hide behind the narrator.
This is one of many bold moves Perry makes, and as it goes with risk-taking, the loss can be as great as the reward. Listen Up Philip is clever, thought-provoking, and artfully made, but it is also cold by virtue of being about coldness. In a film with so many anxious, hollow people--despite how honest they are--I craved more feeling. We get a glimpse of that vulnerability with Krysten Ritter, as Ike’s estranged and exasperated daughter Melanie, but she is unfortunately underused.
Siri Hustvedt wrote, “A comedy depends on stopping the story at exactly the right moment.” Perry expertly blurs where that moment is. The narration, the appearance of Jason Schwartzman, the images of faux-seventies book covers--it’s all very cute until it’s not. Perry sticks signifiers of cuteness, of intelligence, and of maturity in front of his camera and proves how false they all are. A neck beard does not a sensitive man make. In any case, Listen Up Philip marks an exciting step forward for Perry. Despite the film losing some of its magic in the third act, the fantastic premise and style indicate more great things to come.