Listen Up Philip works like a more artistic and intelligent version of an after school special or a scared straight film for aspiring writers, reminding them that relying only on ego and drive to become successful will only lead to a miserable and pitiful existence. As aspiring writers, we frequently make ourselves believe in the illusion that once we become successful, get that first novel published, have that first option on our screenplay, we will finally receive the admiration and respect we so righteously deserve after years of toiling at our craft without any financial compensation.
However, what we fail to realize is that whatever self-centered and narcissistic qualities our art brings out of us, these negative attributes might be compounded significantly upon even a whiff of success, carrying with it the danger of turning us into insufferable and self-obsessed a-holes, maybe even downright wastes of human life. To describe Philip (Jason Schwartzman) in those terms would be a gross understatement. I've met toe cheese that deserves more respect and credibility.
When we first meet Listen Up Philip's lovely protagonist, he's in the middle of actually realizing a reptilian-brain revenge fantasy all aspiring writers concoct in their minds at one time or another: Belittling those who didn't believe in us during our amateur years by throwing our success in their faces. With the self-confidence that the upcoming publication of his second novel brings him, Philip meets up with his ex-girlfriend and his ex-writing partner, both of whom he proudly treats as his inferior. We know that in Philip's mind, where he convinces himself that he's the fascinating protagonist of the great classic American novel, these meetings provide him with the pathos he needs to feel great about himself, yet his narcissistic behavior makes the whole ordeal look sad and pitiful from the outside.
As Philip refuses to do publicity for his novel and emotionally distances himself further away from his photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), who in turn is on the precipice of realizing she can do much better than Philip, he pathetically tries to sell everyone around him on a persona of "The brilliant but eccentric literary legend". He throws around an uncaring, holier-than-thou attitude while making it abundantly clear that he needs legitimacy and adoration more than air and water. He's no different than a helpless puppy that needs constant attention. The only difference is that, instead of acting needy to get it, he destroys your living room and poops in your favorite shoes.
As the rest of the civilized world turns its back on him, Philip shacks up with one of his idols, a bitter old writer named Ike (Jonathan Pryce), who drags Philip further down into an existence made up of unchecked ego and self-aggrandizing via the faux woe of being an "intellectual superior to the dullard majority". If Philip represents how Max from Rushmore could turn into if he followed his self-centered sensibilities, Ike is a miserable bastard who represents Philip's tragically unavoidable future.
Indie writer/director Alex Ross Perry seem to know a lot about the world these characters inhabit. Pretty much everything they say and do, no matter how excruciatingly pathetic, rings true. Let's face it, I'm not successful enough to waste precious hours of my life in the company of someone like Philip, but I've been around people who are on their way to becoming him.
As far as technical approach and narrative structure goes, Listen Up Philip works as a near-parody of the kind of pretentious writing we could expect from these characters. The dry third person narration is pompous and showy, while the low-budget 70s handheld look embodies the worst qualities of contemporary hipster indie filmmaking. However, I can't help but believe that in this case, they are put to good use as they successfully create an appropriately grotesque universe around these characters.
I still don't understand why Tribeca Films won't release a chunk of their films on Blu-Ray. I know that every studio has to pay a licensing fee to Sony so they can release their work on Blu-Ray, but Tribeca strikes me as the kind of company that not only can afford it, but would benefit immensely from offering these films on HD physical media. Listen Up Philip was shot in 16mm and has a very captivating and grainy look full of somber grays. It would have been great to experience it on Blu-Ray, yet it's currently not available in that format. That being said, this is a near-perfect standard definition transfer that looks gorgeous on an upconverted system.
There are two lossy options, Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. Listen Up Philip is a very dialogue-driven experience and there isn't much of a difference between the two tracks, so if you listen to it through your TV speakers, you won't miss much. Otherwise, the dialogue can always be heard clearly and there aren't any sound issues.
Behind The Scenes: Ten minutes of raw footage from the production, without any interviews or voice-overs.
Featurette: A glorified 3-minute trailer with occasional interview snippets.
Deleted Scenes: Seven minutes of deleted material. Nothing really interesting to see here.
Book Covers: A gallery of covers for fake books written by the characters.
Commentary by Alex Ross Perry: Jittery and over-excited, Perry sounds exactly like the kind of person you'd imagine creating a film like Listen Up Philip. His eccentric voice can became exhausting to listen to after a while, but he gives a lot of insight into his process if you stick with it.
We also get a Teaser.
I haven't hated fictional characters in a film this much since The Wolf of Wall Street. As much as I admired Listen Up Philip, I don't intend to revisit it ever again, perhaps because Perry did too good of a job breathing life into these insufferable creatures. It's original, has a voice, and is particularly well made. Yet it's a hard one to recommend, especially to those who require likable or even identifiable characters in their movies. Yet it should be mandatory viewing for any up-and-coming writer to remind them that not only their farts stink, but that they will always stink, no matter how successful they might become.