Listen Up Philip is the very funny story of a man who is a success as a writer (and we all know how rare that is!) but a failure as a person.
The opening of the film finds Philip drunk with power after telling off both an old girlfriend and a college friend with whom he planned to take over the world. The catharsis feeds his already enormous ego as he continues to alienate, and occasionally charm, wherever he goes. The charm is at work with legendary author Ike Zimmerman, who wants to take Philip under his wing. Alienation is on the menu with Ashley Kane, his long-suffering and often-ignored girlfriend.
Philip blows off the publicity tour for his forthcoming novel and moves into Ike’s country house to escape the clamour of the city. Ike gets him a job as a creative writing teacher at a liberal arts college. Everyone there hates him. At this point the film takes a surprising (and brave) turn and focuses on Ashley. This rather strange tangent from young American director Alex Ross Perry is gutsy but not that successful. Ashley is so boring that I longed to return to Philip’s acerbic wit and complex callousness. To a lesser degree the film also follows Ike as he faces his self-created isolation. In an embarrassing scene, he and another legendary author pick up some younger women at a line dancing session. Ouch. The film also features a voiceover narration which is a bit affected but is appropriate for the film. Much of the style is referential and the theme of the difficulty of being an artist (in New York, no less) has been mined often, so I like that Perry is trying to put his own stamp on it.
A major flaw of the film is that the female characters are never much more than one-dimensional. All have potential – the conflicted Ashley trying to move past Philip, Ike’s daughter Melanie who is bitter but loyal, and Yvette, an English professor who hates Philip, falls for him and then reverts to her original opinion. Only Philip and Ike have depth and layers. It is too bad, because all of the women, including other minor characters, have undeveloped potential.
Philip, played beautiful by Jason Schwartzman, is a cad and a narcissistic but I loved him for his brutal honesty. When a younger literary star who was going to do a profile of him unexpectedly dies, Philip says matter-of-factly, “Of course I’m glad he’s dead.” He isn’t afraid to say things many of us think and he isn’t embarrassed either. He also begins to understand what this means for his future. He will replicate Ike’s life and drive away every friend he makes.
If we are meant to be repulsed by Philip’s behavior then the film is a failure. But it is a portrait full of such affection that I can’t believe Perry doesn't love his hero, even if he is a guy most of us would despise if we actually met him. While the film is not completely satisfying, it is sometimes bold and highly entertaining.
September 28th at 4:30 pm at International Village 8
October 1st at 4pm at SFU Woodwards.