Listen Up Philip – Alex Ross Perry (2014)

Listen Up Philip is a strange hybrid. Stylistically, it harkens back to films of the 1970s, although it is set in the present day. However, the type of film it is recalling never actually existed; instead, it kind of recalls the 70s as a specific aesthetic amongst a specific milieu (New York literary types?). It presents as a strange love child of Tarantino and Woody Allen. Another set of echoes are the recent Whiplash, with which it shares, in transformed fashion, the themes of prickly mentorship and the obnoxious striving of youth, and the literary character of Inherent Vice. (Alex Ross Perry’s first almost-feature length film, Impolex, is an adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow). So what is the film about? Briefly, it is a portrait of the titular Philip, a relatively young author whose second book (the pretentiously titled Obidant) is about to be published. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Asshole, it could perhaps be called. Philip happens to meet a literary idol of his, the older author Ike Zimmerman (played by Jonathan Pryce, seemingly modeled on a degenerate Philip Roth) and they strike up a friendship. At the same time, Philip’s relationship with his girlfriend Ashley (played by Elisabeth Moss) disintegrates. That’s pretty much it. Like what it parodies, the film is often insufferable and tedious, but within that gambit, it is very often truly funny as well. Faults are apparent, but are they faults or simply features? The film lacks emotional depth, but so does the protagonist. The film is often very static structurally, but then again, this might also be inherent to the subject matter. There is an unrelenting, vacuous, overly-verbose voice-over that is foregrounded, but then again… you know where I’m going. No matter its faults, if that they be, this is not an empty parody of form or surfaces. What gives it integrity and interest lies in the materiality of the film’s construction rather than within its concepts: the ill-fitting sutures that tie segments together, and the great puncta within many shots carry an internal poetry, adding to the humor by undercutting the pretension, and forming a truly distinct style. In the service of what, though? It is hard to say, as the film basically ends where it began, with some laughs along the way, and a nice side trip through the life of Ashley sans Philip. A relationship film though? Not really, unless we are speaking of how an egomaniac relates to himself. I can see this being a film that polarizes, and it is hard to deny that it is one-joke in nature, and we do get it. But is that all there is to get? That question, nagging, is the keyhole through which we might glimpse…

Three and a half stars out of five

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