a review of Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” (2014)


Lately I’ve been immersing myself in a milieu loosely known as mumblecore- a broad and intentionally shallow world of claustrophobic close-ups, improvised dialogue, and drifting life paths. The previous post lists some highlights.

These films document that nebulous period between graduation from college and the formation of families, which in recent decades has taken the form of a prolonged pseudo-adolescence typified by emotional immaturity, shaky or nonexistent financial prospects, a nomadic lifestyle, and a theatrical, ironic detachment from reality. This state can last into one’s forties (see Ben Stiller’s character in Baumbach’s “Greenberg” (2010).  The prime directors involved are the Duplass Brothers (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus), Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies), Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Margot at the Wedding), and Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister, Humpday). Other excellent pieces that can be shoehorned into this category include “The One I Love” (2014), about a couple (Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass) that spend a week at an isolated retreat to mend their fraying relationship, and “It’s a Disaster” (2012), a black comedy about a yuppie dinner party interrupted by news of a dirty bomb exploding downtown.

These films are fun to watch because they break the Hollywood plot mold.  There are no easy answers, and things are not tied up in a bow at the end.  The dialogue is naturalistic.  The shots are impromptu.  They address the concerns of  real-ish people, in somewhat realistic circumstances.  But some have argued that they are also tedious and sloppy. So the term ‘mumblecore’ was tossed and the directors polished their pieces in order to appeal to a larger audience.  But the spirit persists.  The budgets are bigger, but that delicious abyss still looms.

“Listen Up Philip” concerns insufferable, verbally abusive, rising literary star Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), his long-suffering photographer girlfriend Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss), and his toxic-personality mentor, aging novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Philip and Ike share the infamous writers’ traits of alcoholism and a borderline antisocial disregard for the feelings of others.  Their main hobby appears to be manipulating the women around them (Philip’s girlfriend, Ike’s daughter) into painful situations and stirring up anger, frustration, guilt, pity, in order to stimulate their own creative urges.  Their sordid, self-imposed personal dilemmas play out against the opposing backdrops of Manhattan- crowded bars, cramped brownstones, and Upstate New York- Ike’s cabin retreat, the college where Philip accepts a semester gig teaching intro to writing.

What may sound like an exercise in tedium and loathing is saved by Philip’s frigid wit. There are more than a handful of good zingers and dressings-down to be savored.  The film is also redeemed by Elisabeth Moss’s eminently sympathetic and complex Ashley, caught in that hard place between loving someone and knowing they are gradually destroying you.

I give “Listen Up Philip” four melodicas out of five.