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Listen Up Philip

Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss portray the trials of a self-absorbed writer with humour, empathy and balance.
By Sarah Ward
April 06, 2015
By Sarah Ward
April 06, 2015

Meet Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), an emerging writer on the cusp of the release of his second book. He likes to tell off his ex-girlfriends for their lack of support and dress down his former college roommate for not living up to his standards. He assumes his talented photographer girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), will hang around despite his lack of attention and affection. There's no mistaking it; he doesn't really seem like a nice guy.

Philip is the lead character in Alex Ross Perry's third film after Impolex and The Color Wheel, but Listen Up Philip does more than just follow the ups and downs of a self-absorbed jerk. In an act of structural daring, it tells his tale alongside Ashley's awakening that she's much better off without him. Also included is the plight of Philip's new mentor, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a famous novelist renowned for his self-imposed isolation, but now having second thoughts about his life choices after spending time with his new protege.

Indeed, wondering about decisions made in the pursuit of a dream — be it about professional success, romantic fulfilment or perpetuating an enigma — sits at the heart of the film, a line of thinking almost everyone can relate to. It's easy to see where things strayed from the expected path for the trio, even if it isn't always easy to watch how things move forward, particularly for the ever self-sabotaging Philip and the just as egotistical Ike.

Also striking is the intersection and influence of their deeds, on each other, and on others on top of that. Listen Up Philip may start out with a stereotype of movie depictions of writers, complete with wrestling notions of ambition, arrogance, inspiration and irrelevance; however, what it does so brilliantly is map out the flow-on effects of anxiety, envy and striving for success.

Thankfully, as awkward and abrasive as many of the scenarios in the script rightfully prove, Perry approaches the film with humour, empathy and balance. The narration of an all-seeing, never-sighted figure (voiced by Eric Bogosian) helps make the comic and considerate skew apparent, as does perfect casting. Schwartzman and Pryce play to the movie's sharpness, and Moss and Krysten Ritter (as Ike's long-neglected daughter) to its unanticipated understanding.

In fact, Listen Up Philip actually resounds with more warmth than you might think. Moss brightens every scene she is in, not just stealing the show but demanding the camera's focus on her expressive face and her command of emotion. Hers is a performance of the lived-in variety, a feeling the feature matches in its handheld movements, naturalistic lighting, super-16mm film stock and jazz score.

Actually, it's that textured sense of reality that makes the movie shine, even more than showing the bleakness of poor choices while revelling in dark comedy. In that embrace of complication, there's a lot to like, and even love — even the initially unlikeable Philip.

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