Active Ingredients: Flawless performances; Emotional honesty; Use of close-ups
Side Effects: Fast pace leaves unexplored threads; Abrupt ending
[Listen Up Philip plays through November 12th at the MFA in Boston.]
Listen Up Philip is a small and sincere film, so small and sincere that its uniqueness and genius reveals itself only slowly. Like its main protagonist (though, as we shall see, everyone in the film’s orbit exists as his or her own protagonist), Listen Up Philip is funny, literary, brutally frank, acerbic and brilliant even if the world hasn’t taken notice yet.
Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is a young New York novelist, an uncompromising talent who speaks his mind, politeness be damned. If these qualities have made Philip a great writer, then they’re the same qualities that make him “insufferable” to those around him. They also fail to help his literary career: he’s decided he won’t take interviews upon the publication of his second novel, out of principle, which all but dooms its success before it’s even had a chance.
At least one fan has taken notice of the originality and honesty of Philip’s prose: an established, formerly-great novelist named Ike (Jonathan Pryce), who, we come to realize, is a lot like an older version of Philip. Ike invites Philip to spend the summer at his home upstate, to get away from the distractions of the city and focus on writing. He agrees, and can’t understand why his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) would be angry that she wasn’t consulted.
The simplicity of the motivations and unfolding of these events, however, belies the sharp humanistic insight and tremendous cinematic dexterity of writer/director Alex Ross Perry. Through the beautiful, rich grain of Super-16 footage and bold jumps in chronology and point-of-view, Perry creates a novelistic tone, as fitting to this story as it is difficult to achieve in the medium of film.
His primary success is in laying his characters bare. Philip, Ike and Ashley are all extremely intelligent people; they say what they mean and have no trouble expressing themselves. Perry is similarly honest. With the aid of a wry omniscient narrator (he even clears his throat to begin the film), Perry affords each character a complex interior existence to explore. Ashley, for example, is not simply Philip’s girlfriend, she’s a smart and independent woman with her own career troubles, friends and rich emotional identity.
In fact, Listen Up Philip is primarily about this interiority, the lives we lead when we’re by ourselves. Philip, Ashley and Ike all struggle with being alone, and learn hard lessons about how to live with themselves. By default, they shut others out and wall themselves off from joys and pain alike. By exploring how this process impacts three separate narcissists—with the same unflinching focus they employ to think about themselves—Listen Up Philip feels both singularly specific and bracingly universal.