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JDIFF 2015: Listen Up Philip

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Listen Up Philip

★★★½

listen up philip

With Listen Up Philip, the director Alex Ross Perry has crafted a film that’s a little like its main character Philip – incredibly charming and funny at first but, when you spend a little more time with it, you find it hard to really love.

Perry’s film tells the story of a Brooklyn novelist by the name of Philip Lewis Friedman, a man who is completely self-absorbed and self-centred. He lives with his girlfriend Ashley played by a wonderful Elisabeth Moss. As a photographer, they make up a classic New York middle-class creative couple. Philip is woed by the author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce channeling Philip Roth according to more literate critics), and the two head off to a country cabin with the intention of advancing their literary output. Ike and Philip are both as bad as each other and their pretentious exchanges are sickening, ridiculous and hilarious.

Stylistically the film is a true triumph. From the title credit font to the book covers, it feels like a tribute to (neurotic) character cinema of another era. It was shot on Super 16mm and features lots of tight, handheld close-ups of its characters. It’s rare to get a good look at a character with the camera pulled back. It suits the way he has painted his characters, all of them feeling trapped into tight spaces in life.

For whatever reason, the film deploys a voice-over, performed with dour, dry nonchalance by Eric Bogosian. Maybe the film doesn’t need it, but it adds a theatrical and almost farcical quality to proceedings. The story opts to split out into smaller vignettes about our three main characters, but the way they’re stitched together doesn’t always work. Elisabeth Moss emerges as the emotional centre of the film and yet she’s not really left with a lot to do, as the story opts to dwell more on the male writers. In cinema it’s always frustrating when you’re verging on indifference about characters on-screen, and left wondering what someone off-screen is doing.

The film is maybe a quarter of an hour too long and it feels like we’ve really seen our fair share of stories about New York writers and photographers suffering relationship problems and writers’ block, and it’s a pity we couldn’t have had a plot that felt a little more original to match the stellar effort from everyone else involved in the film.

Writer-Director: Alex Ross Perry
Year: 2014
Country of Origin: USA
Duration: 108 minutes
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce
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Nigel

Nigel loves stupid films almost as much as he likes clever films. He'll watch anything but is usually drawn to documentaries, North American independent films, Irish cinema and gung-ho, balls-to-the-walls Hollywood blockbusters. Here's what he's been watching.