If you were to put a gun to my head (but I hope you wouldn’t) and asked me to a name a novelistic film, I would most likely offer up “The Place Beyond the Pines.” The rich detail provided in the hundreds of pages of text is usually translated into cinematic terms through depth and immensity of scope. This is far from representative of all the capabilities of the novel, however.
Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” might lack a sprawling canvas of time, yet it feels perhaps more novelistic than any film in recent memory. It not only captures the content of the writing style, but it also manages to somehow resemble the form itself. Perry’s consistent employment of voiceover to verbally elucidate the internal worlds of his characters as they trod a frustrating journey of self-actualization makes the experience of viewing akin to curling up with a book on the couch.
To be fair, “Listen Up Philip” is not quite a page-turner in the same way as a novel like “Gone Girl.” If I was reading the story at my own pace, as opposed to having it told to me for an hour and 45 minutes, I don’t think I would be in any huge rush to see it through to the bitter end. (Emphasis on bitter for this snarky scowler of a story.) But the replication and simulation of the prosaic absorption process within a condensed period is certainly a worthwhile use of time.
And while the story is not even particularly innovative or enjoyable, Perry definitely aligns the nature of his plot with the tenor of his form. It seems only logical that an ingeniously written and self-aware film would follow the misadventures of an ingenious and very self-aware writer. Perry’s protagonist Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is Woody Allen meets Whit Stillman distilled into an entitled millennial novelist. A semi-successful writer releasing his second book, Philip is forced to deal with the fallout from the clashes of his elephantine ego in both personal and professional settings.
Schwartzman, given the unjustly rare chance to take center stage, provides a potent mix of pretentious pedantry and embraceable anxiety. Thankfully, though, the film also provides nuance and detail to the ensemble surrounding Philip. This allows Elisabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce to deliver rich performances as Philip’s exasperated girlfriend and his overeager older mentor, respectively.
“Listen Up Philip” takes all the grandiosity normally imbued in the passage of time in novelistic cinema and transfers it to the characters. Letting personalities propel the proceedings is certainly nothing groundbreaking in independent film, but achieving it in this manner is definitely a less common treat. B+ /