Did you ever see 2006’s Stranger than Fiction? It’s a story about a man, played by Will Ferrell in one of his best and most restrained performances, who starts hearing someone narrate his life as though writing a book. He seeks the assistance of a local professor of literature (played by Dustin Hoffman), and from their interactions the key question of the story emerges: Is Harold (Ferrell) in a comedy or a tragedy? I bring it up because though Listen Up Philip possesses none of the overtly self-aware elements of Stranger than Fiction, I find it difficult not to see the movie as Fiction’s tragic counterpart.
Like Stranger than Fiction, we are introduced to the main character, in this case young writer Philip Lewis Friedmann (Jason Schwartzman), by a narrator (Erik Bogosian) that quickly pontificates upon Philip’s life, habits, and personality. Around the time his first book came out (the story proper begins immediately after the publication of his second), Philip took a turn for the egotistical, a habit of arrogance that he’s only gone on to embrace with gusto. The story basically follows the final stages of isolation from his longtime girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) and the growth of his status as protégé and friend of celebrated author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who has successfully cultivated the sort of utter disconnection from interpersonal relationship that Philip now aspires to acheive. The majority of the runtime focuses on Philip, but sections are devoted to Ashley and Ike as well, with Ike’s daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) and a young writing professor named Yvette (Josephine de La Baume) also figuring in to the story.
The narrator can’t quite be called a constant presence in the movie, but when he does rear his head, he’s shockingly verbose. The intended purpose for the narrator seems to be as a source of dry, deadpan humor fitting with the self-absorbed and depressive main characters, and while it works out this way at times, I just as often found myself tuning the narrator out. It’s the classic case of show don’t tell, and while the film goes for humor in stating the obvious (which can work), as often as not the visuals were the more interesting element which the narration only distracted from. A lot of it has to do with the fact that all the characters, though especially Philip, seem to speak in a similar cadence and tone. The narrator too easily blends into scene, and while he occasionally forces forward an important point in the plot or a character arc, the narrator mostly feels like an idea which can’t rely on novelty for success and isn’t quite clever enough to fully justify his own existence.
On the subject of Philip himself, there is again good news and bad. Philip very quickly becomes an insufferable prick, which is exactly who he’s supposed to be, but this feels incredibly limiting because he’s never much of anything else. Philip decides at the beginning of the movie that he will be an arrogant, self-absorbed, elitist asshole to the best of his ability. Ike stands as a warning of what Philip might become to us in the audience, but Philip only sees Ike as the idyllic loner. Schwartzman is magnificent as Philip the blunt, deadpan asshole, but there’s just never anywhere for him to go with it and so the act quickly gets tired. Philip is at all times purposefully on the road to his own tragedy. It’s not that he isn’t offered the choice to a happier ending, but that we know Philip will never make the necessary changes to make that choice viable.
More compelling is the section of the film which focuses on Ashley trying to exorcise Philip from her life. There’s an unanswered mystery in why she ever took to him in the first place, but that’s taken easily enough as a sort of universal question about why we date people who are bad for us. Importantly, though, Ashley actually has movement as a character. We can see the potential for her to be dragged down by Philip forever, but she acts to remove him, and we are able to see the mixed emotions that this invites. There’s a particularly compelling scene where we linger on Moss’s face after she rejects Philip and she oscillates between joy at her resolve and sadness and terror at having cut herself off from a boyfriend of three years. A little surprisingly (though welcome), the forays away from Philip to focus on Ashley and Ike feel very structurally unified with the whole of the film. Ashley and Ike serve as counterpoints, of sorts, and so the diversions are always tied to the Tragedy of Philip that the movie is developing overall.
Less welcome is the low-quality camera work. Half of my negative reaction is personal preference, I admit – I despise an abundance of shaky cam, particularly when it seems to serve little purpose. Listen Up Philip calms down after a little while, but it never wholly does away with what I consider a lazy bad habit that’s worst in the first twenty minutes. But beyond that, there are a tremendous number of shots that are simply out of focus. Director Alex Ross Perry seems to favor the extreme closeup, which didn’t do much for me though never annoys, but it highlights the moments where the framing and the focus are off, and it seems like the production didn’t take the extra time to get it right. It happens so frequently it even feels intentional, but I found no purpose in it other than quirk for its own sake, which the movie already has plenty of.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
There are almost enough moments where Listen Up Philip is a genuinely funny experience that positioning them against the tragedy of Philip’s life seems artistically worthwhile. Almost. In the end, though, the movie is too monotone, not earning enough laughs or even smug smiles to justify watching a man set on his own social destruction stumble forward in willful ignorance. Technical irritants like a bad camera and occasionally obnoxious narrator further undercut what really is some decent structure. Jason Schwartzman does his best to make Philip a compelling antagonist to himself and Elizabeth Moss turns in a good performance as the centerpiece of the film’s best scenes, but there’s not quite enough here to make Listen Up Philip worth the nearly two hours it takes to watch.