Friday, October 17, 2014

Listen Up Philip

We have all met Philip Friedman at some point during our lives.  Imagine that one insufferable narcissist you know or knew, the kind of person who will tear your soul apart with a few unimaginably brutal words.  If you're lucky you only had a single unforgettably awful conversation at a party with him, then simply took a swig of beer and moved on to another more pleasant social experience.  However, some of us have had to live with toxic people like Philip.  They were either our friends from middle school, roommates in college, or worst of all, we dated the son of a bitch.  And once you've broken ties with this caustic human being, you never quite forget the pain he caused you.

"Listen Up Philip" is about one of those vampiric souls who suck the life out of everybody around them, Philip Friedman (Jason Swartzman).  He is a young writer living in New York City, having just finished his second novel.  Friedman begins the movie discovering just how wonderful it feels to verbally abuse his ex-girlfriend and former roommate, then never becomes more charming.  He ignores and alienates his current lover, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), he systemically destroys his writing career in Manhattan, and continues to validate himself on his own greatness as compared to the mediocrity of the world around him.  Philip is an unlikable protagonist, yet "Listen Up Philip" is a sympathetic and fascinating character study within a black comedy.

Much of "Listen Up Philip" is a tale of loneliness in its three main characters thanks to Philip's clumsy destructiveness.  Ashley and Philip never have a formal break up, because Philip is too much of a swine to allow the final conversation to take place.  Yet Ashley spends her summer in miserable torment thanks to this man she loved.  Philip's mentor, the great author, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) allows Philip to live with him upstate.  Ike then sees Philip repeat the same antisocial behavior as he did in his prime, and suddenly comes to realize how terribly alone he has become.  Philip himself spends his autumn banished away to an upstate college teaching Creative Writing, where he ruins yet another relationship, and in his quiet isolation, unable to understand the people from he is estranging himself.

It would be easy to imagine then, that since "Listen Up Philip" is mostly about three depressed people suffering alone, it would be a dreary miserable movie.  However, it is actually a very funny comedy.  Philip's lines are a Greatest Hits List of the most awful relationship-ending insults that anybody has ever said.  He is so outrageous that the movie takes on a "House M.D." quality of 'just what crazy dickish shit is Philip going to pull now?'  One of Philip's first victims holds back tears and then pulls himself out of the bar on his wheelchair, Philip pulling no punches for the handicapped.  A lot of the comedy comes from editing.  Philip is on an idyllic walk with an ex-girlfriend* and then threatens to kiss her.  Smash cut later, she's sprinting away for deal life.  Philip tries to spice up an article he's writing about another writer by 'staging a fight'.  He offers to punch the other writer.  Next second Philip is unemployed again.  The absurdity of his ego extends everywhere.  For example, Philip refuses to wear something other than his heavy wool jacket even though it is summer.  Why is he being difficult?  To prove some impossible point to the world, which only he could ever understand.

Two generations of assholes taking pride in their awfulness.
"Listen Up Philip" is about writers and creative people.  It feels like a very literary movie.  There is a deep-voiced omniscient narrator with a New York accent (Eric Bogosian) who steps in to explain character motivations every so often.  This is exactly the sort of voice a vain novelist like Philip would want chronicling his life.  One imagines that the voice might be Philip's own subconscious, using flowery prose to explain mysteries that the regular Philip might never consider.  We shift perspectives four times from Philip to Ashley to Ike to finally back to Philip again, each one of these chapters showing the agonizing effect that Philip has on himself and on those closest to him.  It is a measured journey through the seasons with these people, getting a three dimensional look at their lives and the mistakes they have made.

Even Philip the Arch-Asshole is humanized by this movie - no mean feat considering the temptation to simply make him a villain.  Jason Schwartzman manages to create in this character a more obnoxious twerp than even his role as Gideon Graves from "Scott Pilgrim", yet he is not a one-sided enemy.  His grandiose statements for all their offense are actually comical and small.  For all Philip's thrashing, Schwartzman's meekness reveals how much all of this is a front, like a puppy barking loudly to get attention.  Philip is a pitiful person, strangled by his ego and pride.  He has never gotten over a long period of inadequacy from an early period in his life (he reveals a miserable childhood only as a last manipulation on one of his lovers)  and now that he's achieved any sort of success at all, he violently attacks the world around him, demanding undue affection and payout.  That everybody recoils from him only reinforces Philip's delusions that he is too good for the world, and that he should only treat it worse in response.

The one person Philip seems to respect is Ike, an angry reclusive old man who has brilliantly torn apart every relationship he ever add.  During the course of the film Ike kills his last remaining connection, the one with his daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter).  Ike of course has already come to realize what a failure his life has been.  However he cannot work up the strength to either amend his ways or warn Philip against the path upon which the young man is embarking.  Philip's malady is more innocent, a simple lack of conception that the people around him actually have feelings.  Ike has has years of perspective to rely upon, yet rejects any wisp of wisdom that comes his way, taking slimy pride in building up the ego of his already pompous student.  These two characters are the same man, just one is many chapters ahead.  Still history seems bound to repeat itself.

Ashley dotes on Philip, while he stares outward, taking her for granted in every single way.
"Listen Up Philip" is as much about the women who have to put up with these arrogant bastards as the bastards themselves.  Ashley is given the most likable role in the movie.  Having been abandoned by the man she loves, she is left in a miserable state all alone in Manhattan.  I note how she pours though Philip's old college writings in search of some answers, yet Philip himself never once recognizes her own artistic achievements in photography.  He cannot be bothered to care about her, or her work.  Meanwhile, Melanie is horrified when she discovers just how many bridges Ike has burned.  These women are badly harmed by these men, but finally come to ask themselves:  why are we putting up with these pieces of shit?  There is no good answer, so the inevitable happens.  You really just want to sit down with Ashley or Melodie, open up some ice cream and tell her what she already knows - "you're too good for him, honey".

The director, Alex Ross Perry, is a young man whose previous films were made on tiny budgets with no-name casts.  "Listen Up Philip" is his first work with actual financing, though he's kept the 16mm he used from his previous shoestring projects.  Yet for that Perry has created a striking and professional film.  There is a gritty dated feel to the texture of the shots, adding to the timeless quality that fills the rest of the movie.  There is no date given for when this story takes place, but nobody uses a cellphone and the clothing is either decades out of style or being worn by ultra-hipsters.  Other camera work adds to the themes.  When Philip angrily stomps through Manhattan, the camera shakes around.  It bounces from the impact as Philip's chip on his shoulder pounds into the pavement.  Finally there is an intimacy created by the heavy closeups and the occasional breaks of focus.

It would be tempting to say that "Listen Up Philip" is a warning to young creative people about the emotional traps they might fall into.   Definitely it would be best for everybody if any assholes or near-assholes could see this movie and mend their ways.  But things are not exactly so didactic.  It would have been easy to condemn Philip.  Hell, I'm sure some people will hate this movie just because they hate Philip, which is slightly missing the point.  More precisely this movie is a film about human relationships, and the reverberations our actions cause on those around us.  Some people make others happy and enrich our loved ones.  Some of us suck their blood to feed our inadequacies.  "Listen Up Philip" is a sharp blade of a black comedy.  It is full of laughs, but also very hard truths.  We know Philip very well by the end of the film, better than he will ever know himself.  But we also leave knowing he is a very bad man, already beyond redemption.

* How does this asshole get so many women?  Somebody please tell me.  I'm fantasizing about instant ramen and he's eating a damn buffet.  Must be the beard.

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