Film Review: Listen Up Philip

A still from Listen Up Philip.

Jason Schwartzman as the titular Philip, oozing the charisma of that guy who won’t stop talking about your fine arts discussion when you accidentally find yourself trapped in a conversation at a party.

Listen Up Philip, 2014

Written and Directed by Alex Ross Perry

“I don’t find you charming. You are just like him, and I hope you take responsibility for yourself before you hurt the people who you love.”

People won’t be happy to admit that Listen Up Philip’s lack of individual originality, the manipulation of those around these characters, and the aspirations for pride rather than success or artistry have more in common with Glengarry Glen Ross than Rushmore. Because what we have here is the acquisition of a vocabulary used exclusively to dehumanize, but it produces results, and so it continues.

“I’m trying to do my best here!” says Jonathan Pryce’s Ike toward the film’s end, in almost the exact tone Jack Lemmon utters the phrase in Glengarry. There’s a tightness to that film that Listen Up Philip eschews, chasing several plotlines that bear less fruit than those in that great script. Still further, the conversations can’t compete because it has too much pretension and too much allusion.

The film borrows from Barton Fink; it borrows from The Social Network; it obviously borrows from Rushmore and Woody Allen’s 70s. But like Rushmore, it borrows those things simultaneously in the creation of something that seems quite personal and without the borrowing accomplishing much separate from its influences. That’s a big reason I’d still be the concierge for The Darjeeling Limited as Schartzman’s best work. Because he is quieter, softer, more a person than a writer’s homunculus.

Elisabeth Moss’s Ashley has been pointed out repeatedly as stealing the film. She does. It is partly because we are watching this film within context, as it constantly seeks to remind us of context (its opening scene is practically robbed from The Social Network, used as shorthand to understand its protagonist) and her context makes this role a culmination rather than a reprisal. I begged for the film to be about her from her first scene.

Once the film takes on its first huge shift, it becomes funnier. It also becomes even less unique, but it becomes much better, largely because Moss gets better and better scenes. There’s a heartfelt nature that enters the film that actually transforms the cinema itself into a real surprise, and it feels genuine. But then that movement ends, and suddenly we’re back to the old film, and I’d rather not be back. It even starts to move the film toward a statement on the cruel narcissism as “once being productive” rather than the simple drive the men felt allowing meanness as a side effect.

I can say with confidence that based on Philip’s putdowns, I would happily let Perry write “Lex Luthor As Portrayed By Jesse Eisenberg, In The Style of Mark Zuckerberg,” my current cinematic fantasy in which Luthor berates and snipes Batman and Superman about their choices of costumes and failed threats. But the description of his next film, Queen of Earth, does not sound like a movie about mean, witty narcissists, and I think it will be superior to Listen Up Philip.

At least, so long as he kills that awful narration.


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