This year’s Derby Film Festival showcases an ‘evidence’ themed detective film line-up, a Jenny Agutter retrospective, numerous guest appearances and more than twenty movie previews. First on our must see list was indie comedy Listen Up Philip. The third feature from Alex Ross Perry (Impolex, The Color Wheel), the film garnered rave reviews following its London Film Festival debut last Autumn.
Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is a novelist. He’s also a selfish, insensitive narcissist. His second novel is about to go to print and, despite a looming negative review from The Times, he’s already named amongst New York’s ‘35 Under 35’. But success doesn’t suit Philip. His life is both ‘unfulfilling and exhausting’. Like the Coen’s Llewyn Davis, Philip is difficult to like.
We first meet him giving his ex-girlfriend a verbal dressing down. Perpetual lateness and lack of interest in his art rank chief amongst her crimes. Energised by the tirade, Philip calls up an old-college writing pal who quickly becomes the next victim of his venting rage and disappointment. Feeling pushed out of the city Philip promptly deserts his partner Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) for a country retreat with esteemed, and similarly self-centred, novelist Ike Zimmerman (a gloriously funny Jonathan Pryce).
Perry’s indie style is enticingly idiosyncratic: full of whimsy and rapid verbal wit. It’s Wes Anderson meets Woody Allen. Richard Brody of The New Yorker has already dissected the relationship between Perry’s work and American novelist Philip Roth. Perry’s fascination with the novel form goes beyond references to a single author. His film is a fusion of cinema and novel: two distinct and often incompatible methods of storytelling with their own possibilities and strengths. Perry’s most pronounced novelistic device is an all seeing, all-knowing omniscient narrator (Eric Bogosian): an intelligent choice that enables his characters to emerge with exceptional complexity and irony.
Imitating the novel form, Perry switches perspectives too. Ashley’s feelings of loneliness, abandonment and regret take up a significant middle portion, while the impact of Zimmerman’s selfishness are awarded their own prophetic segment of the film. Perry’s shifts in viewpoint require a substantial degree of adjustment from un-expecting audiences but pay off in their character development and wit. Elizabeth Moss is particularly brilliant. Ashley’s complex reactions are captured in long, painfully silent close-ups.
As for Schwartzman, the role of ‘artist’ is one at which he excels. His big break came as the ambitious, romantic student playwright, Max Fischer, in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, not to mention his later lead as failed writer-turned-private detective in HBO’s Bored To Death. Unsurprisingly then, he’s perfectly cast here, excelling at Perry’s lightening-quick, cerebral dialogue that conjures the best of Woody Allen. Like Annie Hall, Listen Up Philip dissects the breakdown of relationships with cutting self-confidence. Yet, where Annie Hall’s Alvy channels his relationship failings into a successful play, Philip appears to learn nothing from the human faults of Zimmerman, assassinating his own capacity for human intimacy throughout the course of the film.
It’s this misguided relationship between Philip and Zimmerman that’s Perry’s main source of comedy. Zimmerman’s constant one-upmanship manifests itself in backhanded compliments and bizarre quirks: Philip is rarely treated to the twenty-five year single malt that Zimmerman himself enjoys. Between the lines, Zimmerman’s crumbling family ties and reliance on artistic prowess for romantic bait represent Philip’s own frustrating future. The pair identify their possible choices in artistic terms, as ‘cliché’, but their dissatisfaction with life suggests some blame lies in their own misplaced dreams.
Many cinema-goers will no doubt find it difficult spending two hours in the company of such unpleasant characters. Yet Listen Up Philip is the kind of film that likely fares better on the second viewing: when structural surprises and irredeemable characters are recognised as par for the course and the viewer has more space to consider its rapid (and on the first viewing sometimes indigestible) monologues. With Listen Up Philip, Perry marks himself out as an important independent filmmaker. His nostalgic visual style – typewriters, retro book sleeves and the film’s gorgeous orange tinge – is reminiscent of the past without labouring the point. Perry’s latest project, writing Disney’s live action version of Winnie the Pooh, is certainly one to watch.
The Derby Film Festival runs until Sunday 10th May. Listen Up Philip is released in the UK on Friday 5th June 2015.