Welcome To Sundance: Listen Up Philip
Prententious might not be the right word. Ostentatious definitely isn’t it either. Egotistical feels a little warmer…
Pompous! Pompous might be the perfect way to describe Philip, the lead character in the film Listen Up Philip. The Sundance Film Festival premiere follows the young novelist and insufferable asshole Philip, (played by Jason Schwartzman who steps away from his usual characters and back into a role more akin to his break-out performance as Max from Rushmore) as he strolls through life with sandpaper in his socks, giving anyone and everyone a piece of his mind. But not without letting them know what a giant favor he is doing them by doing so.
The film opens with Philip speed walking towards a diner to meet an ex-girlfriend for lunch. The camera shakes incessantly as it follows Philip, further adding to the frustration you feel as you watch him bump shoulders with the slower walking crowds on the sidewalk. Symbolic to his nature, the rest of the pedestrians seem to be walking in the opposite direction of Philip, as he and his furrowed brow fight their way upstream.
A monologue of explanation describing Philip’s character and his thoughts is delivered to the audience with little emotion by narrator Eric Bogosnian. The narration, which remains heavy throughout the film, serves as the majority of the dialogue between writer/director Alex Ross Perry (who proceeds Listen Up Philip with the successful indie-short The Color Wheel) and his audience. The narration is so thick that it often times leaves the actors moving silently through a daisy chain of montages.
Although director Perry gives the excuse that his excessive use of lengthly narration saves the audience from unrealistic and unnecessary dialogue between characters, it is in my humble opinion that the overuse of narration is nothing short of lazinesses on the director’s part. Some might see it as an original use of the medium, but those people would be wrong. Films like Perfume: Story of a Murder and The Royal Tenenbaums both use narration in a stylistic and well-placed manner, while Listen Up Philip‘s narration only serves to over-explain the emotions of the characters and make the film feel like it’s an audiobook playing on top of a silent film.
Philip’s photographer girlfriend, Ashley (performed by the understated champion of nuance Elizabeth Moss), serves to butler Philip’s ego. This kindness affords Philip the opportunity to live safely inside the comforts of her New York apartment while he relentlessly dishes out his self-declarations of importance, many of which come at her expense. Their relationship seems to never be on the forefront of Phillip’s mind, as he makes life-changing decisions without her. Their relationship seems more like a means to an end for Philip, as he precariously searches around town for something more.
He doesn’t find this something more inside a young and beautiful photo assistant (played by our dear friend Dree Hemingway), but that doesn’t stop him from letting her swoon over him in a bar as he vomits self-praise and academic rhetoric at her – until she finally goes in for a kiss. He vetoes her advances by explaining that he had once tried to flirt with her at the beginning of his career, and she had not returned his lusty furvor in the slightest. But now that his work is beginning to pick up steam, he wasn’t the least bit surprised that she was more than willing to lock lips with the famous writer that he has become.
As much as you might want to hate Philip for being such an arrogant prick, there is still something inside of you that cheers him on as he gives the world what for. Not only is it comical to watch Philip berate the people in his life with insults, but let’s not pretend that we haven’t all day-dreamed of the day when we have become so successful that we can tell every who has ever done us a slightest bit of wrong to go eat a bag of dicks. However, we can only root for our pretentious protagonist for so long, and after a while Philip’s actions begin to weigh heavily on the audience.
The turning point for Philip comes when he gets to meet the world renowned author, Ike Zimmerman (played by veteran actor Jonathan Price, who gives the show-stealing performance of a life time). The well-spoken and highly successful author calls on Phillip to meet him at his home. The old man begins to praise Philip on his work and without hesitation or any real request from Philip steps into the role of a mentor of sorts. From the get go, the two writers seem to be a match made in heaven. They spend their days complaining about people lesser than them, who act as vampires sucking on their creativity and success. Zimmerman goes as far as letting Philip use his vacation home as a writer’s retreat, which does not go over well at all with Zimmerman’s daughter (played by Kryten Ritter who escapes the chains of television to add a first-rate performance to the supporting cast) who already feels neglected and forgotten by her father.
Even with a hefty amount of praise and support, Zimmerman will find ways to casually insult Philip in order to remain the alpha-male and feel less like an old man whose time in the spotlight has come to an end.
As Philip’s relationship with Zimmerman begins to grow, his relationship with Ashley starts to dwindle. Still, the young author remains unaffected by the emotional interludes of people that he no longer feels the need to impress, building solely on relationships of disdain, be it to motivate or amuse him.
Listen Up Philip, whose title remains the biggest mystery of the film to me, is meant to serve as a precautionary tale of the folly of allowing your ego to control you. It pokes fun at its pretentious characters and their inability to relate to the common world. Strangely enough, while listening to director Alex Ross Perry speak to festival goers at Sundance about his film, I couldn’t help but see a lot of Philip inside the director. His demeanor towards the audience and the cadence in his voice as he answered their questions served to build more on Philip’s character than all of the long winded monologues from the film combined. Seeing that Perry would fit in perfectly with Zimmerman and Philip actually made me like the film more. It helped me to understand that people can’t help being exactly who they are, even if they understand how ridiculous they might be.