Monday, November 24, 2014

Pain in the Rump: Jason Schwartzman embodies acid tongue in less-than-satisfying "Listen Up Philip"

Listen Up Philip (2014)
109 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

The prospect of spending time with a frustrating, unlikable but identifiable character is not always a cinch. It can be a challenge to both endure as an audience member and execute as a filmmaker, but it can be done take anyone in a Woody Allen, Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach movie for instance. Or, Charlize Theron's delusional Mavis Gary in Jason Reitman's "Young Adult." Writer-director Alex Ross Perry (2011's "The Color Wheel") is not interested in making anyone fall in love with his protagonist in "Listen Up Philip," an acidic, occasionally savagely funny character study that was well in reach of being fascinating but never quite gets there. That the titular Philip is an unpleasant human being could be seen from space. He's such an insufferable, unapproachable prick, and if one crossed paths with him, you would risk getting hit by a truck just to get away from him. What makes "Listen Up Philip" try one's patience rather than be an incendiary success is that everyone else is way more interesting than the leading pompous bore. Perhaps that's filmmaker Perry's point, but it doesn't make for an entirely satisfying experience, especially cinematically.

After the release of his second book, abrasive, braggadocious author Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is all alone and it's easy to see why. His successno, noteworthinesshas gotten him too in touch with his selfish instincts. He has severed ties with his closest friends, telling off old girlfriends and friends whom he feels have betrayed him, and puts his needs before those of live-in photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss). Upon refusing to do any promotion for his new book and then meeting for lunch prolific novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) who admires his work, Philip is offered the chance to get some work done at Zimmerman's country home away from the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn. Ashley is less than thrilled and goes on with her life. During Philip's stay, he also meets the old man's daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter), who can hardly deal with her father being even more narcissistic and self-loathing than Philip.

Jason Schwartzman could characteristically be playing Max Fischer of Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" as an adult, and he's excellent at playing a caustic twerp begging to be hated. It is nasty fun to watch Philip dishing it out, taking it, and then dishing it out some more. His misery isn't contextualized until the very end, but even if a certain revelation in his past doesn't tenderize Philip or make him any more appealing, it makes him a little more human. Philip cannot change and will not change. In playing Philip's older self in essence, Jonathan Pryce is superb, finding colors in a definitive narcissist. Well served by Perry's script, Elizabeth Moss' performance is a study in empathy, as the emotionally wounded Ashley is the most understandable character in the film and one can't help but root for her to move on past Philip. As Melanie Zimmerman, a young woman who sees Philip quite clearly and deals with her father seeing her and her mother as disappointments, Krysten Ritter showcases an emotional richness that hitherto had been untapped. 

Being shot on 16mm film stock, Sean Price Williams' zoom-happy handheld camerawork has a grainy '70s underground vibe, but a little of it goes a long way, as if every actor had to have his or her own literal close-up. An omniscient narration by Eric Bogosian is a novelistic crutch that sometimes drowns out dialogue when we could understand characters' emotions without being told. With bite and just a little humanity for good measure, "Listen Up Philip" is decidedly not for every taste, but it takes the piss out of pretentious writers and never makes any apologies for their actions. It can be literate and smartly acerbic, with sharply played characters that feel authentic and lived-in, but it's a question of how much the viewer can stand Philip to see it worth the hassle to get some bitter laughs and glimpses of great fake book covers. It all comes down to this: Philip better listen up, but does that mean we have to listen to him?

Grade: C +

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