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‘Listen Up!’—annoying, arrogant but somehow likeable Sundance film

February 23rd, 2014 Posted in Arts and Life

By Katie Swain

PARK CITY—Premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, “Listen Up Philip” is the latest indie film from director Alex Ross Perry. With unlikable author Philip Roth (Jason Schwartzman) as the belligerent, cantankerous, yet somehow charming protagonist, “Listen Up Philip” skillfully walks a paradox of hating and empathizing with its humorously despicable characters as it tells the story of the arrogant loneliness of the budding New York writer largely through the eyes of supporting characters.

With sharp, witty dialogue supplemented by an unassuming narrator, “Listen Up Philip” begins with Philip on his way to berate ex-girlfriend and various other old friends in light of what he assumes will be the massive success of his second published novel. Talented and fresh but nearly impossible to work with, Philip speaks to everyone he knows, including his very sweet and supportive girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), as though they were worthless plebeians he can barely stand to lower himself long enough to even acknowledge.

On a pedestal of praise from the success of his first book, Philip announces to his publisher he will not be promoting his new book at all and then refuses to cooperate at a photo shoot for his book. Philip speaks with a bitter rage he seems far too young and naïve to contain. With almost fascinated horror, the audience watches as Philip burns bridge after bridge with petulant narcissism that he seems to justify as the result of a creative and artistic mind.

Finally finding validation in one of his writing heroes, the accomplished Ike Zimmerman (Johnathan Pryce), Philip accepts an open-ended invitation from Ike to escape the crowded suffocation of New York City to write at Ike’s home upstate. Leaving quickly, Philip first manages to permanently ruin his relationship with Ashley (though his arrogance refuses to see it until much later).

Ike and Philip grow close in an almost hero/protégé relationship. While each is unable to have a healthy bond with any other human being, their shared pride and appalling haughtiness make them perfect for each other as they stand aloof from those who once loved them in favor of an elite loneliness.

Director Perry makes an interesting story choice about thirty minutes into the movie by suddenly removing Philip from the film. Abruptly, the story follows Ashley’s life without Philip, and then Ike’s. Though Philip doesn’t appear in any scenes for about 45 minutes, his story continues in his absence in the eyes of others.

In what could be considered a risky move, Perry pulls off Philip’s absence with a natural grace, managing to make Philip’s personality and life seem more thoroughly explained and rounded out by not directly discussing him at all. This story-telling by absence is complemented by the use of the heavily-present narrator voice. Perry seems to realize that occasionally it’s more effective to understand someone by hearing from a third party than to listen to direct dialogue. Perhaps purposefully done in a movie about authors, this approach makes it seem more like the audience is reading a book than watching a film.

Another tactic used to draw the audience in is the film’s aesthetic appeal. Perry fine tunes the film into a 1970s style piece of art. From the characters’ wardrobes, to the credit font style, to the somewhat vintage filter the whole movie seems to be filmed with, the movie is visually impeccable.

With an incredible supporting cast to back him, Schwartzman’s stunning performance of Philip is so perfect for the film it’s hard to imagine the actor playing anyone else. Amidst astonishingly cruel and callous actions, Schwartzman manages to convince the audience of Philip’s charm and magnetism. He’s a train wreck the audience can’t help but want to piece back together, despite his utter indifference to any help.

With a brooding gaze and upturned collar that seems to be a physical manifestation of Philip’s need to be set apart from the rest of the world, Schwartzman makes Philip into a man that is as easily idolized as hated, much like the movie itself. While not the movie you might be able to watch over and over without being in a rather darkly sarcastic mood, it’s hard not to see the artistic genius of “Listen Up Philip.”


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