Listen Up Philip opens at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre tonight. Actor Jason Schwartzman is scheduled to attend two screenings. For more information, check out the theater’s website here.
Contemporary American cinema is filled with many an asshole: Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Jeff Daniels’ Bernard Berkman in The Squid and the Whale, and now Jason Schwartzman’s Philip Lewis Friedman in Listen Up Philip. The aforementioned films from Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach served as critical moments for these filmmakers – Blood was the point where all of Anderson’s bravuras entered into a new stratosphere and Whale was where Baumbach returned following an 8-year sabbatical. Anderson and Baumbach are among the chief American auteurs of the 21st century. Alex Ross Perry, meanwhile, is a comparatively unknown director. His previous two features, Impolex and The Color Wheel, generated a measure of critical acclaim but it’s with Listen Up Philip that the writer/director finds his definitive breakthrough. Contemporary American cinema is filled with many an asshole; Listen Up Philip is about one of the most interesting ones.
There’s an incredible swiftness to the film’s opening act that demands multiple viewings and careful study, if only to appreciate how Perry composes, condenses, and communicates information to his audience. Philip (Schwartzman) has completed his second novel. With its impending release, he flaunts his success to an ex-girlfriend and college friend, relishing in the opportunity to talk them down on their missteps in life – his success is a harbinger to his own self-imposed isolation, egotistically wearing down his “enemies”. Perry develops a rich visual text in these opening sequences, where camera movement and cuts function in a uniquely harmonious way. Take for example, following his verbal beatdowns, the way the camera moves ahead of Philip, then quickly cuts to a moving train as Philip fails to make it onboard. Perry shifts the location from a sun-drenched exterior to the grays of a subway terminal in a way that makes it feel like a single take – that’s an impressive formal technique that allows the camera to move along with its character in what’s essentially a way of immersing its audience with the text.
The narrative possesses a welcome literary tone, with Eric Bogosian (Talk Radio) functioning as narrator. This is a gamble, as more often than not narrators tend to underscore the obvious. But Perry utilizes narration in a very powerful way, particularly as a means of emphasizing tense and visual structure. With the film primarily being about Philip’s falling out with his long-term girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) and subsequent friendship with a similar-minded and crotchety writer named Ike (Jonathan Pryce), Perry wisely utilizes his narrator to speak of the future, not the present. In one of the film’s most emotionally potent scenes, Philip and Ashley are separated by a door, as the two confront a certain break-up. And while we hear what Ashley says for a moment, it’s slowly drowned out by Bogosian’s narration, underscoring a critical point of view that could perhaps be described as Philip recounting this heartbreak in the past tense.
And while Perry’s technique is a definite highlight, it would be hard to imagine him being as successful were it not for the film’s incredible ensemble. Schwartzman and Pryce are exceptional, functioning as the sort of literate but cynical types who cannot accept the world that’s handed to them. And the film would have been an aggressive exercise in misanthropy were it not for Moss’ performance. This is all material that we’ve seen before, but the manner in which Perry allocates time to Moss and Pryce, at times eclipsing Schwartzman’s presence in the film, is a bold move. The emphasis on Ashley getting over the breakup is particularly resonate, because it’s so rare for films to actually explore this side of things – the wounded picking themselves up and contending with the immediate loneliness of a breakup is a powerful thing. And unlike a film like Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there’s no easy fix to make one forget. Meanwhile, Ike serves as the clear future extension for what Philip will grow to be. But like Philip, Ike is a complex figure, and only reluctantly accepts the role of mentor as a means of contending with his own repressed depression.
The film is a formidable exercise for its formal qualities and performances, to be sure, but it is most importantly a film that resonates on a personal level – almost to an embarrassing degree. Perry details a warm, autumn world (the film is shot on Super 16mm and looks amazing), but the pangs of loneliness weigh heavily on the film. Its character is a bitter asshole who is unaware of the kind of emotional damage he inflicts on those around him. Listen Up Philip makes you more aware. Hopefully for the better.