Daily | NYFF 2014 | Alex Ross Perry’s LISTEN UP PHILIP

Listen Up Philip

The font, of course, evokes the covers of novels by Philip Roth

“Of the many ironic things that characterize Alex Ross Perry’s third feature, Listen Up Philip, perhaps the most ironic is the film’s title,” suggests Michael Pattison at Grolsch Film Works. “New York-based author Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) isn’t listening to anyone: not his long-suffering girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), not the creative writing students he’s supposed to be teaching upstate at Lambert College, not even his mentor Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an older, more experienced novelist who divides his own time between NYC and the remote country home to which he voluntarily exiled himself years ago…. Soothed by Keegan DeWitt’s tonally ambiguous jazz score, Listen Up Philip is open to Woody Allen comparisons, and though its voice-over recalls that director’s more recent works, it’s to the emotionally messy likes of Hannah and Her Sisters (1985) and Husbands and Wives (1992) that the film more consciously aspires.”

Listen Up Philip, despite its careful attention to the tone and texture of the literary life, is not a film about artistic creation,” argues Max Nelson, writing for Film Comment. “The hard-fought business of influence; the rifts and eddies of inspiration; the process of shaping a sentence into a kind of musical phrase; the painstaking working-out of character, plot, tone, setting, and theme: the movie deals not with these writerly gifts but with the consequences of wanting them too badly, or using them too often and too well…. Listen Up Philip carries over several of the stronger aspects of Impolex [2009] and The Color Wheel [2011]—their resourceful use of 16mm film stock; their tight, luminous close-ups (Perry’s three features have all been shot by Sean Price Williams); their delightfully skewed comic timing; their prickly, belligerent attitude towards male-female relationships—while avoiding many of their faults, thanks in part to its remarkably intelligent writing and in part to its considerably sharper narrative structure.”

“Above all, Listen Up Philip is an extremely strange film, in its downbeat way,” writes Jonathan Romney, also for Film Comment. “It’s novelistic in its digressions, its waywardly unstitched time scheme, its killer one-liners that are all the more effective in that often you can’t always pin down just why they’re so funny; it’s to do with tone, with a poised, deliberate off-ness about them, as in Philip’s ‘I’m not successful, I’m notable. There’s a difference’ or in his remark to Yvette about ‘My uncle. Mon oncle. Like the film.’ … This is a film that hypnotically, perplexingly, just drifts.”

At the L, Mark Asch notes that “the autumnal palette and grain of the image, as if already slightly faded, makes the film seem an artifact from an earlier era of NYC moviemaking…. The presence of Fluffy—Alex Ross Perry’s own pet, as his Twitter followers know—is maybe a good joke within the insular world of Brooklyn film culture, and similarly it’s a personal pleasure for me to see that Philip and Ashley live on Washington Avenue between Myrtle and Willoughby, and to recognize so many local artists and personalities whose careers I’ve been following. But beyond any smile of recognition, it’s striking to see this stuff of real life transformed into a work of art that exists fully apart from it, and will in time stand in for it.”

Earlier: Reviews from Sundance.

Update: “Considering that Perry identifies as a hardcore cinephile, his style is surprisingly performance-driven,” finds Danny King at Reverse Shot: “his work prioritizes dialogue and the close-up. This isn’t to say his movies, with their staunch commitment to celluloid, aren’t beautiful to look at, but that his voice comes through via the accumulation of emotion rather than visual flourish. In the case of Listen Up Philip, he also shows his absolutely dead-on instinct about what to leave off-screen.”

Updates, 10/10: “This is a film you laugh at while you’re watching it, sometimes riotously, sometimes in horror, but its overwhelming melancholy will seep in the more time you spend thinking about it,” writes Steve Macfarlane at Slant. “It must be said, Schwartzman’s acid-tongued Philip actually has a decent amount in common with Max Fisher; it’s like the vulnerable childhood defense mechanisms of the boy genius from Rushmore have ‘matured’ into an ongoing, all-out war with the world. Viewers will watch in breathless terror every time he strolls into a room, his churning misanthropy instantly freighting the scene with tension.”

“With [Philip] Roth’s work combining ‘comedy and pathos and perversion and commentary,’ Mr. Perry said recently, ‘it really felt like all of his books were written just for me.'” Nicolas Rapold for the New York Times: “Adapting Mr. Roth’s impassioned, densely written stories, explicitly or not, has always been a challenge, and Listen Up Philip is only the latest response, from the 1969 film Goodbye, Columbus to the forthcoming The Humbling. (Another adaptation, American Pastoral, is scheduled to shoot next year.)” Rapold talks with several directors who’ve taken on the challenge.

Update, 10/13: “Applying cinematic auteurism to an actual author, Perry… leaps into the maelstrom of creative fury and finds its victims,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody.

Updates, 10/14:Listen Up Philip is a rueful, remarkable film about how success can still feel like defeat,” writes Sean Burns for the Movie Mezzanine. “I first saw it at Sundance back in January and haven’t shut up about it since. It’s funny as hell, but funny in that way where the laughs catch in your throat. I’ve watched it three times since then. This is a relentless downward spiral of a movie that finds the melancholy in misanthropy—like Llewyn Davis’s literary cousin.”

For BOMB, Nicholas Elliott talks with Perry, who tells him that Philip is “the exact kind of guy I’d probably be really good friends with, because he’s funny, he’s good at what he does, he knows what he wants, and he’s serious about his chosen vocation. That’s the exact kind of person I’m drawn to. Whether or not the person who has all those things is also a decent human being is, to me, less relevant than whether or not I’m talking to someone who has a good sense of who he is, knows who he wants to be, and is committed to whatever it is that he’s chosen to do.”

Updates, 10/15: 4.5 out of 5 stars from Scott Tobias at the Dissolve: “Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson: This is their territory, and quite possibly their sweaters, too. And yet Listen Up Philip, from first scene to last, somehow both honors and continues that tradition while burning the whole establishment to the ground. In its unsparing, almost anthropological dissection of a specific type—the self-loathing, narcissistic East Coast man of letters—the film is a reminder of how much those filmmakers, even the Baumbach of Greenberg or Margot at the Wedding, attempt to ingratiate themselves to the audience. Perry doesn’t care to make his hero cute or conventionally redeemable in any way, and he doesn’t turn away from the emotional wreckage he leaves in his wake. It’s one of the film’s many small miracles that it can be this harsh while extending a true generosity to its characters.”

And Jonathon Sturgeon talks with Perry for Flavorwire.

Updates, 10/16: “A triumph of composition and organization,” declares Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “It’s a movie of aftermaths—yet it crackles with a sense of immediacy, the handheld camera pushing its way into tight emotional spaces, framing the actors in revealing and unflattering close-up. Aside from James Gray’s The Immigrant, no other movie released this year has a richer relationship with its characters. It’s generous, but completely unsentimental.”

Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir finds that it “breaks free of so many cinematic conventions at once that the experience is disorienting. It has huge blocks of literary-style narration, read in affected Upper West Side tones that suggest National Public Radio at its most self-indulgent. It has a thoroughly appalling protagonist… Once you adjust to Listen Up Philip, it’s also invigorating, disturbing and frequently hilarious, but that adjustment’s not entirely painless.”

“Ms. Moss is rapidly emerging as one of the most exciting actresses in American movies,” argues the New York TimesManohla Dargis, “and there’s great joy in just watching this intensely expressive, empathetic performer. There’s mischief in her eyes and smile, but she has a silent screen actress’s wistfulness and a gift for conveying an inner stillness that can suggest depths of melancholy.” Then there’s “the astonishing coda to a late, bitter fight in which Mr. Perry and Ms. Moss together create—with a lingering close-up and eddies of triumph, despair, elation and regret—a masterwork about what it is to live for love and not just the self.”

Screenwriter Ben York Jones (Like Crazy) at the Talkhouse Film: “‘Jeeeesus…’ A spent-sounding utterance that most accurately pinpoints my lingering reaction to Alex Ross Perry’s powerful film Listen Up Philip. I said it out loud the moment the film ended. Both a heavy sigh of relief and a bothersome realization that while I was done with the film, it wasn’t done with me.”

Two more interviews with Perry: Ryan Lattanzio (Thompson on Hollywood) and Nick Newman (Film Stage). And Hillary Weston talks with Schwartzman for BlackBook while Kevin Jagernauth interviews Moss for the Playlist.

Update, 10/17: Another round of interviews and profiles: Sam Fragoso (Dissolve) and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (AV Club) with Perry and Schwartzman, Robin Holland with Perry and Diana Drumm (Slant) with Schwartzman.

Updates, 10/18: “The movie has a peculiar structure, in that it follows the narratives of individual characters almost willy-nilly, delivering wry, upsetting mini-narratives of the futility of all human endeavor,” writes Glenn Kenny at “These are all peppered with discomfiting insights and dialogue zingers, and Perry’s eye for comic detail in all the right places pays off nifty dividends… The terrific cast all delves into the material full-bore, which contributes to its peculiar resonance. Perry may hate everyone and everything, but in making a show of it, he’s thoroughly entertaining. One hopes he works out his anger issues some time for his own sake, but I’m actually worried it would have a deleterious effect on his actual art.”

Listen Up Philip “may be this year’s most unpleasant movie I’ve nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed,” writes Slate‘s Dana Stevens. “Philip Lewis Friedman is an atrocious bore, but as played by Schwartzman and written by Perry, his story isn’t, because this savagely frank character study of a toxic narcissist takes time—unlike Philip himself—to listen to the damaged people he leaves in his wake.”

“The screening I caught at the New York Film Festival began with Perry effusing over the number of great movies he had seen in that venue and how thrilling it was that his own was selected,” writes New York‘s David Edelstein. “Then he went on to talk about showing up his enemies, his affect so endearing that I thought the Nixonian language was a put-on. But on the evidence of the film, it’s only half a put-on. He probably does have an enemies list…. I know there’s a kind of obviousness in the complaint that the protagonist is an unrelenting asshole when every character says—when the whole point of the film—is that he’s an unrelenting asshole. But a central figure who’s all bad is even more boring than one who’s all good. He has no dramatic stature.”

Update, 10/19: Chris Tinkham talks with Perry for Interview.

Update, 10/21: For Slate, David Haglund talks with Perry and Teddy Blanks, who designed the book covers for the novels not just by Philip but by other characters as well, “how these terrific literary jokes came to be and which particular writers inspired them.”

Updates, 10/23: “Anyone who had trouble putting up with Ben Stiller’s abrasive title character in Greenberg might pause before entering the world of one Philip Lewis Friedman,” writes Robert Horton in the SF Weekly.

Funny he should say. “Both Philip and Greenberg recall the late ’60s, early ’70s cycle of assertively dark and openly ethnic comedies whose protagonists could be characterized as ‘nice Jewish bad boys,'” writes J. Hoberman for Tablet. “Neither Philip nor Greenberg are particularly nice but they are definitely ‘boys’ in their refusal to accept responsibility for their deeds (Philip’s favorite expression, he tells Yvette, is ‘you forced my hand’), as well as difficult, recalcitrant, angry Jews.”

Jake Mulligan talks with Perry for Movie Mezzanine.

Update, 10/24: Criticwire‘s Max O’Connell has been reading the interviews—Zach Gayne‘s got another one at Twitch—and comes to this conclusion: “What separates Perry from his characters, then, is a certain amount of self-awareness, present in both his films and his interviews. Perry recognizes his own weaknesses and habits, something that Philip and Ike either don’t see or ignore. Perry also recognizes just how painful Philip and Ike’s treatment of others is…, as well as how difficult it is for highly accomplished, arrogant men to come to terms with the fact that they’re assholes…. [T]he freshness of Perry’s perspective is the truth that for everyone who reaches a “stop being an asshole” epiphany, there’s a dozen or so who take ostensible life lessons and take it as reason to isolate themselves emotionally.”

Update, 10/25: “While the tightly composed, handheld camerawork has an in-your-face intensity that should be off-putting, the pacing has drive and punch that compensates,” writes Ray Pride at Newcity Film.

“Listen Up Philip is true to the sensibility of Roth’s Zuckerman books—to their wit and to their energy, but also to their emotional tenor,” writes Calum Marsh for the National Post. “Where it diverges from the source is in the centrality of its women.”

Updates, 10/27: For Press Play‘s Max Winter, Listen Up Philip is “the equivalent of watching a Biblical punishment unfold on film.”

Matt Fagerholm talks with Schwartzman for

Update, 11/2: “Ever since his revelation in Anderson’s second feature, Schwartzman… has been one of the most distinctive American actors,” argues the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “What’s special about him is that he’s perfect at playing intellectual artists because (may he forgive me for the label) he is one. In addition to his work as an actor, he’s a musician; in addition to that, he’s a passionate consumer of music, movies, and books whose approach to art is naturally critical and swirlingly self-questioning. His verbal style is no mere way of performing; it’s his very way of being.”

Updates, 11/13: For Noel Murray, writing for the Nashville Scene, “no matter how lively the writing and filmmaking in Listen Up Philip are, the movie wouldn’t work without Schwartzman, who gives a career-best performance in a role that’s of a piece with his two other signature characters: Max Fischer in Rushmore and Jonathan Ames in the HBO series Bored to Death.”

Listening (97’47”). Alex Ross Perry is Peter Labuza‘s guest on The Cinephiliacs.

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