Is it worth $10? No
In "Listen Up Philip," New York writer/director Alex Perry Ross ("The Color Wheel" ) has striven to create an intellectual relationship comedy to succeed the greatest works of Woody Allen. That such a task is monumental ought to be readily apparent to any moderately informed fan of cinema. The great mystery of such as Ross' project is why filmmakers who don't seem to get what makes Allen's films work so well would embark on such a mission to begin with.The movie begins with 30 year-old Philip (Jason Schwartzman [every Wes Anderson movie ever conceived]) walking up a Brooklyn sidewalk to the strangely detached, third-person narration of Eric Bogosian. The brainy verbiage and fast delivery of both narrator and lead make your defenses come up immediately: What are they trying to sell? Philip, a mildly successful novelist, parades a newly adopted concept of verbalizing whatever self-centered, acerbic thought that comes into his mind. So this annoying, self-important smarty pants proceeds to alienate his live-in girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss, "The One I Love" , excellent despite the proceedings), friends, colleagues, and you. He meets new friends (mostly starry-eyed women), and gets on their last, ever-loving nerves, also. It's difficult to believe anyone other than Ross' inner circle or the most militant, self-styled intellectuals could more than barely tolerate Schwartzman's character.
Of course, this is brushed off by other critics and hometown apologists like A.O. Scott of the New York Times, who coined the quixotic phrase "tyranny of likability." Indeed, "Listen Up Philip" is New York indie-scene trendiness (circa 2013) encapsulated: "Inside Llewyn Davis" meets "Frances Ha."
It isn't that Ross is completely blind to Philip's un-likability, but that he way overestimates Schwartzman's ability to counterbalance the character's abrasiveness by virtue of his simply NOT BEING Jake Gyllenhaal, say. Unfortunately, Ross' ultimate decision that Philip is not wholly arrogant and repellant, ruins any chances this story may have had in the beginning. Even people who know someone just like Philip--ESPECIALLY people who know someone just like him--will be put off, completely in many cases. "Listen Up Philip" feels like the product of people who live in constant fear of being literarily one-upped by a peer. It's intellectual hyper-competitiveness.
Painfully told in the lingo of the insufferably intellectual, the movie hoists a strange, "anti-silence" flag. It's not metaphorical, like "Stand up for your rights!" Rather, it's literal, as if Ross had instructed these actors to minimize dialog gaps. Much of the chatter thus sounds rote (AND pretentious). They won't shut up for a second, and Bogosian especially, explaining every emotional underpinning with the tone of a television-for-the-blind descriptive reader, really ought to. This may be a phenomenon of the YouTube generation being self-trained to a "when the sound stops, it's over" reflex. Philip describes his own dislike for quiet in one scene, decrying "the silent, excruciating drive" from the city to upstate New York.
That Philip is one-by-one visited throughout the film by what amounts to a harem of author groupies is not only unsavory but far-fetched. Here, Ross again estimates incorrectly, this time that, simply because all the women vent either anger or frustration at Philip, they command respect above that of willing victims of a narcissist.
Woody Allen buys (many would argue BOUGHT) much license for his filmmaking whims through either overt or implied self-effacement. These filmmakers, Allen admirers, inexplicably insist on self-seriousness instead and, when combined with proud intellectualism, it's a noxious brew.
The only good news here is that Schwartzman can play nasty, his beady eyes and other rat-like facial features assisting his cause. So, while Alex Ross Perry is not the next Woody Allen, you can take comfort that Jason Schwartzman is the new Bruce Dern.
Andres Solar reviews new fare with an emphasis on art house and indie for HOH. He would love to see Burt Reynolds in another Paul Thomas Anderson movie but understands that it probably “Ain’t gonna happen.”
"Listen Up Philip" is now playing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Check MBCinema.com for more details.