Listen Up Philip

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A movie about complicated, neurotic Jewish New York writers made grainy 70s style in Super 16mm? Maybe that doesn’t sound so appealing to everyone on Earth, but I’m definitely the kind of guy to go for that. Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip is a funny, brainy, exercise in recreating the kind of charming, intellectual, well-paced movie about writers, New York, old age, male-friendship and sour relationships that doesn’t really exist anymore. It is, indeed, very reminiscent of late 70s/early 80s Woody Allen.

Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is a writer about to release his second novel. His first novel was pretty successful and the success has very much gone to his head and made him a dick. He meets up with old friends and girlfriends for the sole purpose of shoving his success in their faces and belittling them. He wants everyone to know that he’s somebody now so…screw them. Additionally and understandably, his relationship with his photographer girlfriend Ashley Kane (Elizabeth Moss) is shaky.

Ike Zimmerman (an excellent Jonathan Pryce), an older, highly respected author – clearly meant to be a take on Philip Roth – enjoyed Philip’s books immensely. He soon befriends and begins mentoring Philip. He invites Philip to stay at his summer home with him, where they can write in quiet away from the city. The arrangement is a pleasant one for both of them, though the presence of Ike’s daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) makes it somewhat less pleasant for Ike.

A lot more happens that I won’t go into because the film, though mainly focused on Philip, after this point takes time to explore what happens to its other two main characters, Ike and Ashley, in lengthy and in-depth segments. It’s another nice, unusual touch that adds to the film’s charm, as well as its running time.

Though sympathetic to women – mainly by virtue of the time it devotes to Ashley’s story – Listen Up Philip is very much a movie about men. Not particularly likeable men, but, admittedly, interesting men. Philip’s lack of empathy and understanding towards the women in his life turns them against him one after another, but we also see how he can be charming and fun enough to attract them in the first place. Ike serves as a somewhat grim image of what awaits Philip in time: success, but loneliness, frustration, and ultimately misery tempered by the comforts of male friendship, which, lacking the issues of dependency inherent to romantic or business relationships, Philip and Ike actually manage well.

The one gripe I had with the film is that Philip and Melanie never hook up. When they first meet, Melanie tells Philip something like “I don’t find you charming. You’re just like him.” Of course she does find him attractive and the film makes that borderline clear, but Philip never takes advantage of this, perhaps fearing it may affect the one good relationship in his life, his relationship with Ike. However, it would have been wonderfully Freudian, if also predictable.

Some will despise Listen Up Philip for its lack of likeable characters and the parade of toxic relationships on display, but Perry makes sure that there’s just enough humour and sweet moments – like Ashley’s flashbacks to the good times she and Philip had together, or Philip’s time with Ike – to keep the movie from Cassavetes-esque viewing difficulty. And meanwhile, there’s the film’s intelligence and referential, self-aware style, replete with cool, jazzy soundtrack. Maybe it’s just because I’m now a neurotic Jewish New Yorker, but I got what Perry was going for.

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