The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Listen Up Philip

Listen Up Philip is not the first movie to suggest that writers can be dysfunctional, but it's certainly one of the most entertaining. The value of a good character study is its willingness to take the audience deep into the psyche of its subject(s), and to allow observation of their qualities, flaws, contradictions, and foibles. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel) and star Jason Schwartzman prove to be a potent team, as neither blinks from showing the toxicity of the story's central figure.

Schwartzman plays Philip Lewis Friedman, an author and all-around prick. With his second novel about to be published, Philip decides that promoting it is beneath him. He's tired of the hustle and bustle in New York City, and losing interest in his photographer girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). The solution to all his problems seems to come when his idol, veteran writer Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), invites Philip to stay at his summer home. Ashley doesn't like the idea of him leaving for a long time; he doesn't care. He takes the offer, finds little happiness, and ends up staying anyway, if only to avoid going home. Ike, meanwhile, finds his own self-righteous misery reawakened by his visitor, much to the dismay of his daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter).

Listen Up Philip is not so much about what happens as it is about how things happen. The film is a series of scenes in which Philip exhibits selfish, narcissistic behavior, either oblivious to or unconcerned about its impact on those around him, even the ones he ostensibly cares about. He ignores Ashley's needs. When he takes a gig as an adjunct professor at a college, he rudely blows off the students who are inspired by his work. He stonewalls the editor who's only trying to help his book reach an audience. The one person Philip is remotely civil to is Ike, because both are arrogant writers who have deluded themselves into thinking their success gives them the right to be eccentric and difficult.

This may sound like an unpleasant way to spend two hours, but it's not. Perry has crafted a smart, often witty screenplay about how writers can be so busy observing behavior that they forget how to identify with it. There's much perverse pleasure in seeing how Philip builds this strange, emotionally impenetrable wall around himself. It involves many layers of self-delusion, most of which erroneously cast him as a victim. He's insecure and jealous, he thinks everyone else is the asshole, and he inherently almost compulsively - uses other people. Yet the point is not to revel in his dysfunction; rather, it is to explore a mindset. Creative people often have personality disorders, and Listen Up Philip explores the impact of that on someone's personal life. The very thing that makes an individual's work engaging, the movie seems to say, is the same thing that can make them such a pain to be around.

The quality of the performances also helps the film remain likeable even when its characters are not. Jason Schwartzman is perfect as Philip, all ego and bluster, but with more than a hint of self-loathing underneath. He's such a fundamentally appealing actor that we gladly follow him, even when playing a cretin. Some of the best scenes are the ones he shares with Pryce, who makes Ike a miserable guy who perks up when he finds (essentially) a younger version of himself. Moss and Ritter, meanwhile, deliver ace supporting work as the women who suffer the most at the hands of these self-absorbed fools.

Shot in a 1970s, John Cassavettes style with hand-held cameras and lots of beautiful film grain, Listen Up Philip is often funny and fascinating. There are a few times when the pace lags just a bit, and the female characters are so intriguing in their own right that they could have been given even more to do. Still, most movies are scared to death to have characters that aren't likeable. This one chooses not to avoid them, inviting us instead to study them. Listen Up Philip is a compelling examination of bad behavior.

( out of four)

Listen Up Philip is unrated, but contains adult language and subject matter. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.

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