For Claire Bloom
At the current New York Film Festival, Listen Up Philip is not different in backbone from that of last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis or in ways from this year’s non-selection Words and Pictures. Like the Coens, director-writer Alex Ross Perry assumes that, so long as the protagonist is semi-based on a real person or two, audiences will forgive and forget his being a leech and boor and bore, a misogynist and liar, self-righteous and friendless, family-less, insulting, abusing, using and alienating the world with abrasive cynicism, callously lamenting an opportunity lost to a young man’s suicide and yet press Q&A quote-unquote “likable.”
Intense close-ups, said Perry, project the anxiety and claustrophobia of New York City (and its movie apartments that real people would kill for). The Super 16mm camerawork also reflects the isolation of Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman). Non-cinematic “early and often” voiceover (Eric Bogosian) filling in so much background and emotions that ought to have been shown or else left out, the central figure’s short fuse explodes at the lateness of ex-girlfriend Mona (Samantha Jacober), then at a crippled ex-college roomie for not being a go-getter.
His first novel a success, much is expected of the forthcoming Obidant, but the thirtyish writer suddenly and arbitrarily declines to cooperate with anyone or anything -- a dust-cover publicity photographer or a worshipful shoot assistant (Dree Hemingway), his own editor (Daniel London) and publishers, and especially his live-in girlfriend of two years, Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss).
An art-world photographer, she is on the cusp of the commercial success -- their enviable place is hers, so he is actually the live-in -- of which he is arrogantly disdainful. She is fully committed to their relationship, but he is touchy, forces bickering that grows into serious arguments, and looks for solitude, silence and space in which to realize the creative genius he is confident of.
The chance comes when he meets literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) and is invited to spend a soon-extended week at the older writer’s upstate home and retreat. Between the two there is more than passing resemblance -- biography, bibliography, name and even physical appearance -- to our foremost living writer and a couple or three dead ones, all multiple-marriage failures. The older, grey-bearded Ike is not finding new inspiration, either, and is an A1 misanthrope into which younger black-bearded Philip already gives ample promise of blossoming.
The revered mentor torments visiting estranged daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter), who looms as possible love interest but instead targets frustrated anger on Philip, even after he leaves for a college creative writing position which her father’s influence afforded him. He is miserable at Lambert College, where no one likes him, a situation for which he lays the blame, not on his caustic self but on fellow faculty member Yvette Dussart (Joséphine de La Baume).
Initially resentful of Philip’s being hired without any training or credentials, the Frenchwoman soon swoons to his unobvious charms and replaces Ashley in his bed. The camera leaves Philip for some time now, to center instead on those he touches: abandoned Ashley and her adopted Gadookey (Fluffy the Cat) to replace him; soon to be abandoned Yvette; and Ike, whose relationship with his sort of protégé is ambiguous -- admiration, generosity, companionship, molding, domination, curiosity, though really without a hint of the homoeroticism some will invariably look for and find.
The tale returns to, and will end with, Philip, as deservedly alone as wannabe folk singer Llewyn Davis. This romantic egotist is not romantic at all but so shallow that his tearjerker bed story of the accident that deprived him in one blow of parents and unborn sibling, rings tasteless and false. There is no redeeming social value in him, his story or his film.
(Released by Tribeca Film; not rated by MPAA.)