Title: Listen Up Philip
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Major Players: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce
Out Of Five: 3
Director/writer Alex Ross Perry is a man who likes a challenge. How else do you explain a film which bills itself as a comedy but has a central character who’s extremely hard to like?
The man in question is Philip (Jason Schwartzman), an author who believes he’s on his way up. As he’s about to have his second novel published, it looks like he’s right, but he’s not celebrating. Instead, he’s turned down the publicity tour, his relationship with his live-in girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) is on the skids and he can’t stand living in the city any more. Meeting his literary idol, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) offers him an escape – a stay at the writer’s country retreat. Inevitably, it’s only temporary, and the real world soon starts to beckon ……
Like I said, he’s not easy to like and you wonder how he manages to create any characters for his books when he’s so totally self-obsessed. Even more inexplicable is his ability to attract women: he admits he treats them all badly yet always expects them to take him back willingly. And he’s so selfish that, when he reads about the sudden death of a journalist who was due to interview him, he’s full of regret at turning down the opportunity. It would have been the journalist’s last piece and, as Philip himself observes, “They’re really hard to get ……”
Which gives you an idea of the humour. If you’re expecting big laughs, this is not the film for you. Instead, it’s much more wry, subtle and even tart at times. There’s also the distinct feeling that this has been written by an older man, looking back at his earlier years with more than a smidge of ruefulness, but not total regret. So it’s astonishing to discover that Alex Ross Perry celebrates his 31st birthday later this year. He’s an old head on young shoulders.
If there’s one person who seems to understand Philip, and whose company he actively likes, it’s Zimmerman. And that’s because they’re incredibly similar, self-obsessed misogynists who, with their shaggy beards, look like the younger and older version of the same man. And Zimmerman sees the similarity so clearly that he’ll tell the younger man something and then say that he knew it already. There is one point of difference, thankfully, and that’s the twinkle in Zimmerman’s eye, something totally lacking in Philip.
So the film boils down to two men who are best in their own company and Philip’s girlfriend, Ashley, who also comes to discover she can function perfectly well – if not better – on her own. The ideas of individuality and isolation start to emerge more strongly, as does the difference between the two. Individuality isn’t the same as selfishness, isolation not necessarily the same as loneliness, although the latter is a definite threat, in the big city or anywhere else. And Philip gets his first real taste of it when he takes a lecturing job and discovers that nobody likes him or will have anything to do with him. And, surprise, surprise, he doesn’t like it: he might not be keen on other people, but he needs them to fan his ego.
The cast give consistently good performances, with Elisabeth Moss on especially good form as Ashley, showing how she learns to be her own person, even if it’s not the choice she would have made. Jonathan Pryce is as excellent as you would expect as Ike. Morecambe and Wise fans will recognise in one scene, where he’s had a few to drink, he’s performing their notorious “two old men sitting in deck chairs” routine. It’ll be lost on American audiences – and he’s supposed to be an American!
I’m not sure Listen Up Philip succeeds wholly as a comedy, but this is a week when I’ve watched several of the laugh-out-loud variety. This isn’t in that category: irony and sarcasm, with a touch of bad taste, are closer to the mark. But humour is a very personal thing.
Does Philip take the advice of the title? What do you think ……?!
Listen Up Philip is currently on release in selected cinemas and reviewed on the latest edition of the Talking Pictures podcast, https://soundcloud.com/freda-14/podcasttalkingpictures4june2015.