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Movie Review: Listen Up Philip

The one thing to know about Philip, played with a dry smarminess by Jason Schwartzman, is that he’s a real jerk. Essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates once defined an asshole as ‘a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms’. This is a good description of Philip, a young and on the verge of success novelist who revels in either settling scores with those who never realized this or just making the ones closest to him miserable. And in turn he blames all of his misery on them. Or is his misery just some sort of constructed reality to foster his creativity so that he can live his life in a way that serves his own ends? It’s this nebulous idea that helps drive this movie along, and Schwartzman is adept at providing Philip with absurd levels of doing whatever it takes to avoid actually being nice or sympathetic to anyone. Starring alongside Schwartzman is Elizabeth Moss as his girlfriend Ashley. Moss is great at showing strength despite Philip’s nature, perhaps this comes from playing Peggy on Mad Men, where there plenty of male jerks. The other main character is Ike, a role model turned companion of sorts for Philip. Ike is a celebrated author with famous books like Madness and Women and his 80’s comeback novel Audit. (There’s a lot of humor in this movie, it’s just very dry and subtle.) Ike, played by Jonathan Pryce, serves as sort of a reverse Jacob Marley, showing a sad vision of what will happen if Philip continues on his path, but offering very little wisdom or introspection.

The movie throughout is mostly filmed with a handheld camera, often shaky and unfocused, sometimes either exposed or underexposed. This effect can be bit jarring at times but it works. It often helps provide a sense of claustrophobia and chaos that mirrors the world that Philip creates for himself, or is trying to get away from. An unexpected feature is the narration by Eric Bogosian, who is often explaining the inner thoughts of Philip. Of the narration choice, director Alex Ross Perry explained it as a sort of gimmick, saying “I wish there was some way in thirty seconds I could explain the entire history of this relationship, so I don’t have to spend 60 seconds doing it in dialogue. So the next thing I do is, I should have a narrator. That could be our gimmick.” For the most part it works, although the only part of the movie that doesn’t really work is when we go for long stretches without showing Philip at all.

There are shades of Woody Allen and a less formal Wes Anderson throughout, and if you pay attention there are some good laughs. While extremely unlikeable, Schwartzman is so compelling as his character there’s a distinct void when we don’t see him on screen. And so it’s really Schwartzman as Philip that makes this movie work and why you should see it.

Listen Up Philip starts Friday, October 31 at the Nickelodeon. Get Tickets Here.

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