Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 08, 2014 6:22 pm 
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Portrait of the artist as a destructive young prick

Listen Up Philip, a mordantly witty 2014 Sundance hit, must be taken for what it is, its faults meshing with its strengths. It has an insufferable rising young writer protagonist no one will like, but this is what makes it fresh and unique work: his rapidly delivered caustic and narcissistic brutalities are the film's most delicious moments. The film's style is a mixture that makes a virtue of necessary roughness: set in a recent digital-free time with visual touches of French New Wave and Cassavetes shaky-cam. long-lens 16 mm. images, it embraces the indie no-budget roots from which writer-director (and in his last film, star) Alex Roth Perry is also beginning to emerge. Hollywood producers who came on board for this third feature permitted him to pick his dream cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elizabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Dree Hemingway; for the protagonist's latecomer French academic adversary-girlfriend, Joséphine de La Baume; and for the voice-over narrator, Eric Bogosian.

This is a movie whose slightly over-written, fast-delivered dialogue a young Aaron Sorkin might have scripted for Noah Baumbach: the opening scene, in which newly successful young novelist Philip (Schwartzman) kisses off a former girlfriend recalls The Social Network's motormouthed Harvard date opener. Listen Up's central narrative device, borrowed from William Gaddis' mega-novel The Recognitions, is one that almost sinks it: the articulate asshole main character, Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman, whose small stature, neat attire, and soft manner do much to make the character's egocentric meanness palatable) disappears for a big chunk of the middle of the movie. Moss and Pryce are eminently watchable in Schwartzman's absence, but the change of tone seems dubious even if this is what justifies the festival blurb's phrase celebrating Listen Up's "brazen mixture of bitter humor and unexpected pathos." Brazen, or simply awkward? Perry isn't yet as ready-for-prime-time here as Baumbach was when The Squid and the Whale got its celebratory 2005 debut at the 43rd New York Film Festival, but maybe he doesn't want to be. Anyway, Listen Up Philip (if this is about a persnickety writer, how come the comma is missing?) was the first film added to the 2014 NYFF's Main Slate. And it means to be, as was Squid, a quintessentially New York movie.

New York residents Alex Ross Perry, NYU Film School grad and Listen Up writer/director and his mostly-documentary collaborators dp Sean Price Williams (who also shot two other 2014 NYFF films, Iris and Heaven Knows What) and editor Robert Greene are young cinephiles and pals with skin already in the game. The trio met working at the legendary (and just recently defunct) East Village movie nerd destination Kim's Video. This is Perry's third feature, though he admits his previous one, Color Wheel, where he plays a grumpy writer himself, was on the "scrappy" side. Perry wants both to capture a New York state of mind and majorly evoke his literary idol Philip Roth. "Philip" is not only in the title. After he has hilariously alienated all those who might have helped him promote his second novel, Obidant, Jason Schwartzman's young novelist finds a friendly older mentor clearly based on Roth (or his books) and with the Rothian alter ego name Ike almost-Zuckerman (Zimmerman) -- the character played with sublime ease by Shakespearean actor and UK TV vet Jonathan Pryce. The movie's title even borrows its title font and end title invented jacket images from Portnoy and other Roth books. The plot borrows from Roth's The Ghost Writer and The Human Stain. Zimmerman, who adopts Philip during a dry spell and invites him to his woodsy country retreat, is the mature older model of the writer personality Philip has already become in fledgling form, a man who has discarded most of the friends and women in his life on the way toward lonely literary fame. “Don’t make yourself any more miserable than you need," Ike advices Philip. "Leave that to the women you love. That’s pretty much what they’re there for.” And there's lots more where that came from. Philip is on his way here, and happy to be so. Perry's "hero" is bravely austere. He keeps him a schmuck through and through. But neither Ike nor Philip is verbally crude or abusive, nor do they visibly destroy lives. The girlfriends Philip loses survive him, and Ike's daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) finally gives up on him and moves on too.

Zimmerman gets Philip an adjunct professorship in creative writing at a nearby college, extending his stay away from the city and from Ashley. On campus and in depressing faculty housing, he's lonely and alienates everybody -- though in a rare upbeat turn of events, that ends. People begin to like him and he starts sleeping with his self-declared departmental enemy, Yvette (de la Baume). He keeps missing Ashley and wanting to go back to her: Perry seems to be working and reworking the theme of failed relationships, with a heartless guy and a brave girl who eventually realizes he isn't worth getting back. Listen Up Philip, with its hole-in-the-middle, seems a patchwork at times, but the parts are often brilliant and original, and the academic moments and Zimmerman's pontifications are as good as anything in the first scenes, even if style seems to trump structure.

Listen Up Philip, 108 mins, also played, after its hit Sundance debut, at Locarno, Rio, Vancouver and London. It was screened for this review as part of the 52nd New York Film Festival 9 October 2014, a kind of apotheosis for Perry, Williams and Greene, with their New York friendship and declared love of the Press & Industry screening site, the Walter Reade Theater. It has a limited theatrical release coming 17 October and VOD 21 October.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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