LISTEN UP PHILIP [2014]

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Written and Directed by Alex Ross Perry

Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de La Baume

This odd little film instantly drew me in when I read it was about a writer. I am a sucker for anything about writers and authors, so as soon as I read about this I knew I had to buy it. Its not perfect, but it is a neat indie film that takes us inside the head of a writer, who is self-conscious but at the same time arrogant as all hell. He has had one book published and a second one on the way, but none of this seems to bring him any joy. The movie begins with him lashing out at a former partner and an old classmate, being an almost unbelievable bastard. At first one thinks, are there actually people like this? Of course the answer is yes, there are many, and the script makes these angry confrontations rather funny in a dark way. The first, his ex, he doesn’t give time for a reaction, while his classmate speaks his mind sarcastically, responding appropriately to Philip’s arrogant point of view. Later, Philip congratulates himself for having given these two an appropriate ‘dressing down’, as he felt that their friendship was poison to his mental health.

The use of a narrator is a smart choice given the main subject is a writer, as we hear how Philip’s life is panning out as if they were words from a book. It is a neat technique and it works; Eric Bogosian handles the job effectively, giving us insight into the strange mind of Philip Lewis Friedman, played excellently by Jason Schwartzman. In one amusing scene, during a photo-shoot, he is posing for a camera, already visibly annoyed. After sitting on a stool, the photographer asks him to stand and to hold a copy of his own book as if he were reading it. This simple requests somehow drives Philip up the wall, as he bluntly comments that it is a poor idea, and asks the photographer sarcastically “why would I be standing up, with my jacket buttoned, reading?” It was a remark I couldn’t help but laugh at, despite the fact Philip is such an intolerable bastard. What can I say, I can relate to him!

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Philip is not a simple character. He is someone who wants success, but the aforementioned photo-shoot has irritated him so much that he decides to shy away from any activities that would help him promote his book, much to his publisher’s irritation. In fact he does the opposite; when he gets the chance to meet successful writer, Ike Zimmerman, he immediately accepts Ike’s invitation to stay at his country house. Ike at one point comments that the city is filled with creativity, but not productivity. He also reveals that he has not written a single page within the city for 30 years. It becomes obvious quickly that Zimmerman is a mirror image of Philip, and feels an urge to pass on some sort of wisdom to him. What is initially a week’s stay turns into an indefinite stay, which irritates his girlfriend, for good reason, who at this point we are asking ourselves, “why hasn’t she just told him to go fuck himself already?!”

This is could be have been a weak point of the film; while Philip’s arrogant musings are funny in a very dry way, it is hard to believe that he has had a girlfriend of two years. However, it is made clear that the last few months has made his girlfriend feel less important in Philip’s life, and vice versa. In addition to this, it becomes obvious that she is working through personal issues herself, albeit mostly due to the way Philip talks to and treats her. Interestingly, after Philip extends his stay with Ike at the country house, the movie shifts its focus to Ashley, who adopts a cat and seems much more happy with him (or her) than she ever felt with Philip. We see her going out with friends, working on her photography, but it all seems slightly fake… For a period, until the narrator informs us that she has erased all traces of Philip from her home.

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It is interesting that the film veers from Philip to focus on Ashley for a fairly lengthy period, but it works and is essential to further hammer home just how insufferable Philip is. She is moving on with her life, but her part is played so well by Elisabeth Moss that we can never quite tell if she has truly moved on or not. This shift in focus to Ashley is bold but feels right, as it puts into perspective what a complex person Philip is, and while it may be easy to hate him, he is not so easily forgotten.

While she plays a small role, Ike’s daughter Melanie consistently provides interesting dialogue, and puts into perspective just how alike Ike and Philip are. The rest of the film see’s Philip move to teaching creative writing at a college, while also meeting a potential flame in a French woman, Yvette, who at first hated him. His feelings about teaching at the school are mixed and change as the film goes on. He isn’t comfortable, but he seems somewhat content, and continues to speak his mind to anyone who is in front of him.

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Overall, I feel like this movie is an extremely apt look into the mind of an author. As an aspiring novelist myself, I found myself identifying with many of Philip’s feelings, though I would like to think I am less of a rude and arrogant person! The way the movie transpires was also something I connected to. Writing can be a lonely exercise, and this movie depicts being a successful novelist as exacerbating this notion. While I obviously cannot vouch for this, it is emotionally resonant and fitting for a person like Philip. While relentlessly pessimistic for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed this film despite its titular character being thoroughly unlikeable. It made me laugh on a number of occasions, though I am guessing this humour won’t be for everyone.

This won’t win any prizes, and I doubt that many people will relate to such an unlikeable main character. I however felt a connection to him and Ike, in some ways, which perhaps is why I enjoyed this film as much as I did.