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Maybe it's my fault. I saw the teaser for Listen Up Philip, saw Jason Schwartzman would be applying his neurotic electricity to the role of a socially awkward novelist, and expected Bored to Death. Well, not expected. Hoped for. I hoped this New York Film Festival entry would have the kind of generous self-mocking and silly satire of the HBO series where Schwartzman played a bored novelist turned detective. Instead, I got Alex Ross Perry's acidic brand of comedy that made me twitch far more than laugh.
Schwartzman stars as Listen Up Philip's eponymous anti-hero New Yorker who is both self-righteous and perpetually unsatisfied as he approaches the release of his second novel. Deeply self-involved, he quickly isolates himself from his photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). Yet he finds a mentor in a similarly hyper intellectual yet emotional stunted author Ike (Jonathan Pryce). Having little sense of propriety, Philip forces his way into Ike's life and vacation home, where he meets and irritates the man's estranged daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter).
Amid all this there is much sniping, declarations of other people's failures and idiocy, and much, much voiceover narration from a blasé Eric Bogosian.
Listen Up Philip plays like Alex Ross Perry is the belligerent bastard child of Wes Anderson and Woody Allen. While it's easy to accuse nearly any NYC-set movie about neurotics of ripping off Allen, it's the flustered staging of walk-and-talks and rambling fight scenes where his influence is most felt.
Like Anderson, Perry's characters have incredible potential but a deeply flawed self-awareness (sometimes played by Schwartzman funny enough). His narration makes this original story feel like a religious adaptation of a beloved novel. Perry's meditations on melancholy and fetishization of hardcover book covers likewise borrow heavily from Anderson, but he lacks the balance of the Royal Tenenbaums director's twee sensibilities, as well as Anderson's skill for visual storytelling.
There's no discernible definition to the production design of Listen Up Philip. Its characters are defined in a rush of narration before they have a chance to speak. In truth, the narration--relentless and intrusive as it is--robs the films promising cast of the opportunity to create the characters on their own. We don't need to see that Ashley is distraught over her crumbling romance, because that is (apparently) what Bogosian is there for. He'll just tell us.
In a nostalgic gesture perhaps, Perry shot the entirety of this dramedy on Super 16MM Film. In this format, he favors shots that are consistently claustrophobically close-up, often framing out elements the characters reference, causing bits of confusion for the viewer throughout. Combined with handheld cinematography that rattles with an amateurish quality, this makes for a movie that is murky in its look, and frankly ugly.
The editing of the film further frustrates. Perry repeatedly builds to climactic moments--for instance when Philip goads another rival into a fistfight--then cuts away, robbing the audience of the payoff they anticipate. Other times he lazily fades to black, letting days, weeks or even months slip by. And this rambles on to an ending where even the epilogue--explained at length by Bogosian obviously--is offscreen.
The central concept of the film is interesting. Essentially, as Philip pushes others away, the film too loses track of him, focusing instead in the void he's left in Ashley, Ike and Melanie's lives. However, as Philip is shown to be such a detestable character, it's perplexing that they'd miss him.
I admit, the casting of Schwartzman had me anticipating a very different movie than Listen Up Philip delivered. However, the sprint of information that's unfurled in the film's opening moments (and narration) quickly swatted down these expectations. From there, I tried to engage with the movie that was before me, forgetting the one I'd hoped for. But between the slapdash and choking cinematography, the oppressive narration, and the hideous characters, I didn't find anything fun or funny in this so-called "comedy."