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Listen Up Philip (2014)

Chapter Twee

I highly recommend Listen Up Philip for sociopaths, hipsters, and those doing research on both. Just as Wes Anderson aesthetically curates his precious, buttoned-up comedies, writer/director Alex Ross Perry treats his screenplay as the definitive word on the dark inner workings of New York's literary elitists. Yes, I meant to say "elitists" and not "elites": the movie is lousy with aspirants whose inability to get over themselves guarantees a life of failure and self-loathing. Plenty of films have done that, but few are so smugly in love with their rotten characters as to feel they don't need to involve the audience in such trivia as "story arcs", "emotional growth", or "a reason to keep watching after thirty minutes".

Jason Schwartzman plays Philip Lewis Friedman, whom we meet at a cafe, dressing down an ex-girlfriend who, he claims, never supported his dreams of becoming a great novelist. He takes her to task for insisting that he work really hard at his craft and be nicer to people. He holds up an advance copy of his second book and laughs.

Next, Philip visits a college friend and berates him for settling down and not following through with their "take on the world" manifesto. The friend returns fire, before pushing back from the bar--at which point we realize he's in a wheelchair. I suppose this is the kind of joke that open-minded intellectual-types can get away with because Perry and company are clearly not making fun of people with disabilities--they're just having a laugh at a guy in a wheelchair. Totally different, you guys.

The laughs continue as Philip informs his publisher that he refuses to do press for the book; leaves his girlfriend, Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), in their apartment for months at a time, in order to freeload off crusty, once-successful author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce); and generally finds ways to annoy as many people as possible throughout his "creative process" (lots of staring, walking around, and complaining; very little writing).

With his detached gaze and vitriolic snark attacks, Philip meanders through life with a chip on his shoulder the size of his benefactor's writing cabin. Mercifully, Perry dumps him by the curb for fifteen minutes to focus on Ashley who, for the first time in a long time, focuses on herself--and not just supporting, defending, and combating her boyfriend. Though it's a break for us, Perry doesn't seem interested in Ashley. She goes to the beach, talks to her sister for a few minutes, and adopts a cat.

Were it not for the fact that the female characters are the only ones with souls here (Krysten Ritter plays Melanie, Ike's estranged daughter, with a wounded spitfire quality that comprises one of my year's favorite performances), I would accuse Listen Up Philip of bordering on misogyny. All the women in Philip and Ike's lives are just mouthy props, meant to keep them from having to get real jobs--and to be discarded when they ask too many difficult, big-picture questions. These men are nasty to the core, but they're also, ostensibly, the rough-around-the-edges heroes that socially awkward free spirits in the audience should aspire to be.

Keep in mind, I'm not denigrating the creative process. I know how difficult it can be to get up and write or draw something--anything--especially when the storm front of depression settles in for days (or weeks, or months) at a time. But no one has carte blanche to be this vile to the people around them, even if that vitriol comes out as pithy observations and snort-worthy one-liners.

One could argue that Philip and Ike get their cosmic comeuppance in the end, but we know for a fact that they are incapable and undesiring of change. They are the same ugly human failures at minute one-forty-five, as they were at minute one. And if you weren't absolutely sure, Eric Bogosian drives the point home in a narrative voice-over that is both awful and terrific: awful because he fills in story gaps and motivations that often contradict what's happening on the screen;* terrific because Bogosian saves us the trouble of having to watch more scenes with these despicable characters.

I admire Perry's gusto in delivering a nearly unwatchable slice of filmic toxicity. The dialogue, acting, and direction are so unnervingly good all around that I felt outright attacked as a viewer. Believe it or not, that's a strong recommendation from me, but only for the people whom this movie was designed to speak to in profound ways.

For the record, I never want to meet those people.

*Philip, for example, was apparently once a nice guy who didn't spew verbal diarrhea on everyone he encountered. Uh huh.

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