Listen Up Philip
Cinedigm // R // $19.97 // March 10, 2015
Review by Tyler Foster | posted May 28, 2015
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The notion that characters in a movie have to be likable for the movie to be good is nonsense, but for a movie about unlikable people to work, it does have to have something interesting or entertaining to say or reveal about those characters for the viewer to feel like they haven't just spent two hours with a bunch of jerks. Listen Up Philip, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, focuses on an arrogant, egocentric, needy, angry writer named Philip Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), his crumbling relationship with his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), his new friendship with respected author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), and, later, another relationship with a fellow teacher Yvette Dusart (Josephine de La Baume). There's nothing wrong with focusing on a character like Philip, especially with the characters who aren't so awful surrounding him to break up the monotony of his self-righteousness. Unfortunately, Perry doesn't really have anything of interest to say about these people other than observing them on their small journeys of self-discovery.

As the movie begins, Philip has just finished his second book, and is finding the need to promote it very frustrating. He bickers with a photographer who wants him to take slightly hacky but perfectly common publicity photos, gets in a fight with a young and hip magazine writer (Keith Poulson) who wants to a lengthy profile on him, and ultimately refuses to do any other interviews, speaking engagements, or appearances to promote the book, much to the chagrin of his publisher. The one thing they mention that is appealing to Philip is the fact that Ike Zimmerman liked the book and wants to have dinner with him, which he jumps at. The two authors quickly become friends, and eventually Ike offers to let Philip stay at his home in the woods all summer to unwind and get away from the city. Without consulting or inviting Ashley, Philip accepts.

Perry presents the film in a format similar to a novel, with expository voice-over read in nearly emotionless tones by a narrator (Eric Bogosian). These expository passages would be the meat of such a book, but in a film the device just feels like a run-of-the-mill bad voice-over, an unnecessary flourish that spells out things the filmmaker should be conveying through the performances, visuals, and content of the scenes. At the beginning of the movie, the narrator has little to do but remind us that Philip's insufferable behavior is insufferable, reinforcing or supporting rather than contextualizing these scenes with information the viewer doesn't already know. The middle of the movie has minimal voice-over, but it returns again in the end to explain an otherwise ambiguous ending. The track also inadvertently creates a distance between Philip (and to a lesser extent, Ashley) and the viewer, because it subconsciously directs them to observe Philip from arm's length rather than to have a more direct emotional reaction to him.

Jason Schwartzman has made a career out of playing comedically arrogant characters while also imbuing them with some humanity. His performance in Philip falls into that category, yet Perry's other major stylistic flourish manages to interrupt that too. In the middle of the film, after Philip has spent most of the summer away from Ashley, he returns home to gather some things and runs into her, prompting them to break up. Perry then shifts his attention away from Philip and toward Ashley, ignoring the end of Philip's summer and eventual segue into teaching creative writing at a college on Ike's recommendation. In and of itself, it's a nice little vignette in which Ashley rediscovers herself and washes Philip from her life. Moss' performance is fantastic and heartfelt, and I have to applaud the narrative audacity on principle. In execution, though, the film would almost certainly be better served with a more balanced narrative. Since there is so little of Ashley in the film before and after her, the subplot intentionally feels like a major detour in the middle of the movie, and Perry can't make it the unwieldy nature of it work in its favor within the context of the film.

All of this is aside from the rest of the film, which is crowded with characters trying to have their moments, too. Ike has a daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter), whose vacation time at Ike's country home overlaps with Philip's. She struggles with her dad's bitterness and resentment, and some of that plot is effective but it's edged out by a second romance for Philip, at the college where he ends up teaching, and Ike's attempts to mentor him in the ways of writing and women. All of it contributes to a picture of Philip, and does a good enough job of illustrating how people like Philip turn into people like Ike, but there are too many disparate elements at work for the movie to gel. Philip often feels like a background character in a movie with his name in the title, pushed aside for Ashley and arm's-length narration and Ike and everyone else. It's a cold story about a bitter man, and Perry hardly even has time to tell it.

Listen Up Philip goes in the right direction with its DVD cover artwork, but lacks the commitment to really make the design interesting. Naturally, the art is designed to look kind of like a novel from the 1970s or 1980s, featuring a faded purple backdrop, a hint of wear and tear, a retro font, and a faint "vintage" filter that gives the pictures of Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss a slightly yellowing tint. It looks essentially right, but there's also nothing to it -- the design is so simple, free of nuance or detail, that it loses some of its authentic charm. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case, and there is an insert promoting Tribeca Film.

The Video and Audio
Cinedigm offers Listen Up Philip on home video with an exceptional 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that takes the Super 16 image and beautifully compresses it in a way that makes the process nearly invisible. This is a grainy, gorgeously saturated SD image that carefully manages its appearance to avoid garish compression artifacts and other unsightly problems -- it's one of the rare DVD transfers that honestly doesn't appear to be losing much presented in standard def other than a sense of additional glossy finish. Sound is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that crisply and boldly captures the narrator's monotone intonations, and does fine with the rest of the film's dialogue-heavy approach. The movie's even low on crowd ambiance with which to gauge the surround on the film; most of the movie takes place in secluded homes, indoors, away from people. No subtitles are offered, but the DVD does display the CC logo on the back of the package, for those whose televisions offer that function. There is also a 2.0 stereo track.

The Extras
The main supplement is an audio commentary by writer / director Alex Ross Perry. I can't say I enjoyed the film enough to listen to the entire track, but I have to give Perry credit where credit's due: a generous sampling of the track reveals he is energetic and enthusiastic about the movie throughout, hardly having enough time to talk about all the details he wants to point out. It's rare these days to hear from a filmmaker who is so animated -- his near breathless energy remains up even through the film's closing credits.

Video extras include two making-of featurettes (3:25, 12:13), deleted scenes (7:02), and a book cover gallery. The shorter behind-the-scenes is a standard clip-and-interview affair with Perry, Schwartzman, and Ross, while the other is is a non-traditional, fly-on-the-wall affair capturing moments on the set during production, in and around takes. Without music, it can be a touch dry, but the latter is better than the former, although the former's not so bad as far as these things go. The edited scenes mostly include a subplot where Philip and Ashley visit Ashley's sister Holly (Jess Weixler), who appears only briefly in the finished film (yet another potential subplot). The gallery, of course, gives the viewer another opportunity to see the covers shown in the film.

Trailers for Starred Up, The Comedy, and Somebody Up There Likes Me play before the main menu. A theatrical teaser trailer for Listen Up Philip is also included.

Listen Up Philip is not a bad film, but it can't find a foothold on what it wants to say and the best way to say it. Worse, it happens to be a film about a very unlikable character, meaning it's harder to enjoy the picture as a failed experiment. At most, rent it.

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