Traditionally the advice “never meet your idols” refers to the probable realisation that they will disappoint you. The image you construct in your head of a person you greatly respect rarely matches the reality, as they unexpectedly turn out to exhibit an entirely different persona to the one you assumed from their work. But what if your idol turns out to share and encourage the very worst exploits of your own personality, and you welcome that ego boost?
This is the central question to Alex Ross Perry (Impolex, The Color Wheel)’s third feature Listen Up Philip which follows burgeoning novelist Philip Lewis Freeman (Jason Schwartzman) who on the release of his second novel, is taken under the wing of his literary hero Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), to achieve an artistic seclusion, rather than mindlessly promote his novel in the traditional press-circuit.
Philip is, as far as we can tell, a talented writer, but his increasing self-confidence from his book’s promised success, means he begins alienating his social circle and strong willed girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). Ike actively supports Philip’s self-isolation in search of achieving a greater creative process by offering him his country house in up-state New York, without bothering to mention it to his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) who is staying there, largely to feed his own ego as an ageing, post-relevant writer.
If this sounds familiar, it is, most recently and notably in Damien Chazelle’s good-but-troubling Whiplash, but the clear difference here is the increased level of nuance in Perry’s film which while shares a spirit of “talented people being awful to themselves and each other to create art”, the surrogate father-son relationship between Ike and Philip diverts expectations in having them be both criticised yet sympathetic despite their cruellest indulgences.
Equally, the film isn’t merely about this relationship. Listen Up Philip expertly highlights the general alienation of living in a major metropolis like New York, with the film’s narrator (Eric Bogosian) pointing us towards the loneliness and vapidity of a creative city, where an individual is surrounded by similar people all the time. It is also arguably, and perhaps surprisingly, a feminist film, as Ashley takes a strong, central role during the film’s middle act, as a young talented woman who is constantly struggling with being defined by the men around her, while Philip disappears from the narrative’s focus to show the separate lives of these characters in more detail. It is a neat, well rounded trick which is consistent with the film’s “literary” theme, allowing a real sense of place amongst these interacting, talented, yet struggling people, as well as having a narrator who gives the audience details from the film’s past and future; we see Ashley’s memories in flashback, which colours our understanding of the characters even further.
The film’s style equally makes bold but practical choices, with the cinematography repeatedly focusing on these characters’ faces and their reactions rather than the wider mise-en-scene. This technique is well utilised, especially on Elisabeth Moss’s terrific performance as Ashley – in one shot she manages to convey about five different emotions in around ten seconds – using only her face, after an especially liberating moment for her character. Or the ill-fated party scene where Ike and his old friend Norm attempt to woo two younger, middle aged women. The cinematography really capturing the drunken pressure of Ike’s semi-desperate attempts to appear impressive and in control of the situation.
Perry gets some wonderful performances from his ensemble cast too, which drives the whole narrative home precisely. As well as the aforementioned Moss, Jonathan Pryce is excellent as the initially charming but deeply resentful older writer. It’s difficult to ignore the comparisons to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore when the titular Philip could be a “grown up” version of Schwartzman’s equally bratty, talented and yet sympathetic Max Fischer. It is important that while this is a film about somewhat misplaced male egotism and narcissism, both Pryce and Schwartzman give enough vulnerability to their roles to properly exhibit how frustrating the lives of highly talented individuals can be.
So while it could be argued that Listen Up Philip is a touch too long at just short of two hours – I’m not convinced the Yvette strand is really all that necessary – it is otherwise an extremely enjoyable and insightful dark comedy about the increasingly alienated lives of creative types in the big city. The film avoids clichés, indeed it even pokes fun at them, to show a range of attitudes from those privileged with wealth and talent, to those who are hard-working and self-determined. It is refreshingly relate-able, where it could have been merely a film about “awfully talented people being awful” (ala the aforementioned Whiplash.) It’s literary feel is a neat gimmick in the medium of cinema, and it will be interesting to see what director Perry does next.