Overview: Philip (Jason Schwartzman), an arrogant author, spends time with his idol Ike (Jonathan Pryce) and away from his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), sharing his misery with both of them. Tribeca Films; 2014; Not Rated; 108 Minutes
“Here’s a piece of paper with some staples in it”: Listen Up Philip is a deceptive film, sneakily switching focus so that its intentions aren’t clear for as long a time as possible. It starts with the title, which implies a lesson that Jason Schwartzman’s Philip will or must learn by the end. The narration that opens the film also centers on Philip’s perspective, so there’s no suggestion that we’ll be following anyone but him. Then, about a third of the way through, the film abandons Philip entirely to focus on his girlfriend Ashley, played by Elisabeth Moss. After staying with her for a long while, the film jumps to Philip’s idol Ike, played by Jonathan Pryce, and Philip himself doesn’t take center stage again until the film’s latter half. Listen Up Philip isn’t “about” Philip in the traditional sense, but it is about him in a more abstract way. It examines the parallel effects that Philip has on Ashley and Ike, the former drained of energy by his absence and the latter driven to anxious uncertainty by his presence. The film acknowledges Philip’s personality defects and even criticizes them, but it doesn’t come up with a way to fix them. Philip doesn’t get redemption, and we don’t get the satisfaction of him outright refusing to change.
“The innate ineffability of human disappointment”:The idea that there simply isn’t a solution to Philip’s arrogance and misery is pretty radical, and the film tells you in no uncertain terms that he will be this way for the rest of his life. Despite this blatant darkness, Listen Up Philip isn’t a bleak movie. The humor is bitter, but it’s still very funny. Philip’s egotism is introduced as a source of hilarious one-liners (“I hope this will be good for us, but especially for me.”), so its destructive nature doesn’t drag the film down. Tonally, this film is miraculous. It doesn’t let its comedy belittle its characters’ complexities; we can laugh at them without reducing them to joke-deliverers. The darkness of the film is more significant than an undercurrent, but it doesn’t wallow in misery alongside its characters.
“Read about me, I’m ‘self-deprecating’”: Speaking of, Listen Up Philip features a stellar triptych of performances. The problem is that my genuine compliments are all going to sound backhanded. Schwartzman refuses to ground Philip’s smug self-importance in pain or trauma. There’s never a hint of real emotion behind his eyes, everything about him is right there on the surface. It’s exactly the shallowness that the character requires. Moss is also fantastic, in a similar way. The movie pulls all the life out of her character and then slowly has her build it up again, so Moss spends a chunk of the movie as an empty shell and then the rest of it in an uncanny-valley impression of a functioning human. It’s challenging to deliberately give what is traditionally thought of as a “bad” performance. And in case none of this sounds sarcastic enough, Pryce is perfect in the role of a selfish, paranoid, pretentious jerk. I hope none of them read this.
Wrap-Up: Listen Up Philip is thoroughly surprising, with marvelous performances to match well-written characters and a phenomenal command of tone.