Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)
We follow a bit of the life of a young, self-centered author who finds a mentor in a successful old pro while cutting off any relationship that might help him as a person.
Men, Women & Children (Jason Reitman)
Complex, multi-character story of how modern adults and their teenagers become disconnected from each other and their surroundings while immersed in social media.
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In my last posting (October 16, 2014, reviewing Whiplash [Damien Chazelle]—go see it as soon as you can—The Two Faces of January [Hossein Amini], and The Judge [David Dobkin]) I did a trial run of a new format for those weeks when I have 2 or more thematically-unrelated-films to discuss; at least for me that worked out fairly well so I’m going to use it again this week even though I do find conceptual-connections between the 2 under consideration here, although 1 is essentially a singular-study and the other is loaded with characters whose interactions are constantly interwoven with social-media-encounters. For purposes of clarity—especially because there’s so much going on in Men, Women & Children—I’ll still keep the commentary largely separate on each film, except where overlaps and resonances are important or interesting to note. As always, though, please take my Plot Spoilers notification ↑↑ seriously, especially where Listen Up Philip is concerned (as you can see in this photo, Philip’s watching you closely to be sure you’re listening to me) because it’s just opening this weekend (10/24/2014) in my San Francisco area (where I was fortunate enough to attend an advance press screening), possibly in yours as well if not sometime in the very near future, while Men … is just now widening out a bit after being in release for 3 weeks (hasn’t even cracked the $500,000 mark in domestic ticket sales yet but that’s not been helped by generally-negative-reviews, which I think are unfairly overstated—see details if you like at the Rotten Tomatoes [28%] and Metacritics [37%] links far below, although I'm ready to say much more positive things about it than my dismissive brethren).
What Happens: Listen Up Philip will likely hit most viewers as the epitome of independent cinema as it’s nothing more than a character study of a young-legend-in-his-own-mind-novelist (although his first book drew great response from readers and critics but his follow-up wasn’t that terrific) who’s so focused on continuing his success (with consideration for growing as an artist but always mindful of his need to be celebrated) that he decimates his relationships with anyone who doesn’t seem to have a material-improvement-opportunity for him (yet, he refuses to even go on a PR tour for the new book). As the release of that new addition to his tiny oeuvre is near, Philip Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) breaks up with one girlfriend, Mona (Samantha Jacober)—a quickly-disposed-of-character who doesn’t even rate a surname—then acquires another, Ashley Kane (Elizabeth Moss), a photographer whom he berates for doing too much commercial work. He also latches onto a friendship with an established novelist, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who gives Philip the opportunity to leave NYC for awhile by staying at Ike’s upstate home where Philip starts teaching creative writing at (seemingly-fictional) Lambert College, while being actively modeled as a protégé of hedonistic Ike. Distance grows between the men, though (as Ike acknowledges to his disciple that he’s become a bitter old man, despite his public success; his relationship with his disgusted daughter, Melanie [Krysten Ritter], isn’t any better than the privately-honest-one he has with himself), even as Philip’s confronting hostility from literature-department-“colleague” Yvette Dussart (Joséphine de La Baume), furious that Philip’s getting faculty-status-acceptance despite his slim résumé while she’s worked for years to prepare herself as a serious academic. They eventually reconcile, even have an affair, but as Philip gets on a tenure-track-line she leaves for another college where her career options are better (wrap-up-narration tells us she becomes tenured there); he goes back to Brooklyn, expecting to reconnect with Ashley but she’s moved on as well, won’t even let him back into their previously-shared-apartment. As the film quickly concludes, we learn that as the years go by Philip has a successful career as a novelist (with occasional teaching), although the interpersonal aspect of his life never seems to grow beyond the stunted, self-created isolationism that we’ve witnessed for the previous108 teeth-grinding minutes (a compliment for the film [sincerely] but not for Philip who never “listens up” to much of anything, even though the film’s title implies that this is exactly what a lot of his interactants over the years would like to have said to him but only Ashley is able to make him listen for a short time).
In Men, Women & Children we have a lot more characters to keep up with than in Listen Up Philip, but there is thematic similarity between the films in the manner by which this clumsily-interconnected-cluster (supposedly living in Austin, TX, although there was nothing about their location, lifestyles—except for the quasi-religious-devotion by some of them to high-school-football—nor regional accents that seemed familiar at all to me despite my many formative years there, although that was decades ago so maybe the place has changed that much; honestly, were it not for the fact that there’s a brief verification of the locale I would have thought they were in someplace like Omaha—which I have visited some and almost took a job there so I’m not totally grabbing geography out of thin air) creates their individual brands of isolationism as spouses, parents and children, lovers all become increasingly alien to each other, as if their lives were as abstractly meaningless as is our lonely planet being seen from the Voyager I satellite (launched in 1977 on its journey through and beyond our solar system) as it looks back on our marginal existence as an ongoing metaphor in this film (if you’ve seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture [Robert Wise, 1979] you know what happens when this space-traveling-machine returns centuries from now, but that provides drama on a whole different scale from what we get in Men …). In (somewhat) brief summation, our troubled group is made up of Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Don (Adam Sandler) Truby, a couple so emotionally-removed from each other that he’s obsessed with Internet porn (eventually linking up with an “escort” site) while she visits a bored-marrieds-site that leads to some affairs of her own, even as their son, Chris (Travis Tope), has immersed himself in such sleazy computer porn that when he does have the chance for a hookup with aspiring-media-star/school-slut Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia) he literally can’t perform because her willing body just isn’t extreme enough for his acquired tastes (in a further indication of how quickly the social fabric is deteriorating here, early on in the story Don can’t even get into his so-infected-it-should-be-quarantined-computer so he uses Chris’ only to find evidence of his son’s trashy tastes yet says nor does nothing about it in acknowledgement of their mutual failings within the family).
Hannah’s a creature of contemporary technology as well, with a risqué website (which proves her undoing when she’s barred from a talent pageant that might have launched her career because of her many provocative images on the Web) overseen by her ambitious mother, Donna (Judy Greer), who wants more for Hannah’s life that she got from her own failed attempts at L.A. stardom (getting pregnant with Hannah, which at least led to regular child support from the never-to-be-seen-again father—in one of this story’s subplots one of Hannah’s followers, Allison Doss [Elena Kampouris]—a girl driven to malnutritioned-thinness by media brainwashing, to the point of just smelling a serving of Shepherd’s Pie while munching on celery—is desperate to lose her virginity in admiration of Hannah, although when she finally does she learns the reality of the attraction/attention-span of the average male teenager when the guy won’t even speak to her again except for texts delivered from about 10 feet away—although she was engaged in such a dubious communication mode herself earlier where she, Hannah, and another friend were talking directly to each other while 2 of them were texting insults about the 3rd right in front of her; later her life hits rock-bottom when that one hookup leads to unexpected pregnancy and miscarriage). Later in this story, Donna starts to get serious with Kent Mooney (Dean Norris), whose marriage is now dissolved because his wife left him to go to her California dreamland (while I don’t condone her breaking up her family just to follow an abstractly-romantic-dream of a more exciting life, I must admit that the lure of the West Coast’s Golden State haunted me for 20 years after high school as well until circumstances finally opened up for me to also leave my previous life in Texas); Kent’s quite eager to connect with Donna but he’s not happy at all with his former-football-star son, Tim (Ansel Elgort), whose newly-gloomy-existential-worldview has led him to abandon the “holy pigskin rites” that consume loyal Texans every Friday night in the fall (along with their favorite college teams on Saturday and—for much of the state—the heaven-sent Dallas Cowboys on Sundays). Regarding Tim’s plight, I can’t help but think of the young-boy-version of Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer in Annie Hall (Allen, 1977) who refuses to do his homework when he learns that the universe is expanding: “What’s the point?” even as his mother assures him that “Brooklyn’s not expanding!” (See, Philip, another notable connection between the 2 films under review this week.) Tim’s trying to lose himself in a role-playing-video-game but finally finds some meaning in life with his attraction to Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever); however, it’s hard to have a relationship with a girl who’s under virtual-house-arrest because her mother, Patricia (Jennifer Garner, looking as dowdy as possible), is the lone anti-social-media-warrior in this tech-driven-culture (where the constant tweets, texts, and on-screen images—including the borderline porno ones—are superimposed on our cinema screen to illustrate how media usage and content are completely dominating our characters’ lives), determined to “protect” her daughter from Internet contamination by monitoring everything on her computer and phone (except for the secret account that Brandy’s set up, where she can connect with Tim), even deleting “unacceptable” messages before her daughter can receive them; in my time teaching I’ve worked with some hovering “helicopter” parents, but within that metaphor Patricia is more like an attack-ready Black Hawk, ever alert.
All of this culminates in Tim’s and Brandy’s agitated (in his case, because he found evidence of his mother getting remarried during a Facebook scan without sharing the info with Kent) and confining (in her case, because Patricia finally found the secret account and realized that her daughter was actually in love with someone she hadn’t rigorously vetted—and outfitted with a straightjacket) parents cutting them off from the media connections they desperately needed to bring some sunshine into their bleak lives, leading Tim to attempt suicide only to be rescued by Brandy which finally pushes Patricia into realization mode that her over-scrutinized-daughter is evolving into her own woman whether Mom likes it or not. In the other resolution as such in Men, Women & Children the Truby spouses’ dirty laundry is aired as Don also finds what Helen’s been using her laptop for, follows her to her usual rendezvous hotel to catch her in the act, then casually notes the next morning as he’s fixing omelets that they can either battle over their individual infidelities or just eat breakfast, then carry on. (This reminds me somewhat of the post-explosion-morning-after-scene in Revolutionary Road [Sam Mendes, 2008] where the Wheelers also have a quiet egg-based-breakfast [scrambled for them, just like their lives] but that’s before things really get bad—I just saw this masterpiece again [clearly worth 5 stars from me; see, I could give such a rating to a contemporary film] in the midst of getting this posting written—and highly recommend it as a much more successful example of getting to the heart of empty relationships than what we get in Men …, even in an era  when high-tech meant a dial telephone). All of the other situations in Men, Women & Children just fade from our view, much like Earth itself leaves the camera field of Voyager I as this study in modern broken lives comes to a somewhat-resolved-but-inconclusive-end (as does this “summary,” but there’s a lot of plot here).
So What? One structural component that both of these films share is the unusual use of a narrator in a fictional story (Eric Bogosian for … Philip and Emma Thompson for Men …), a reasonable tactic in both cases here not only because each has connections to novels (being about the fictionalized authors of such in the former, being an adaption of one [written by Chad Kultgen, 2011] for the latter) but also because in Men … there are so many characters and plotlines to juggle it helps to have an outside voice keep us on track at times. Further, for … Philip, writer-director Perry acknowledges in the press materials that he was influenced for his latest film by the structure and visual appearance of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992), where a faux documentary crew is interviewing and following around (in a manner essentially impossible for the footage attained, but that’s part of the conceit of the film) 2 couples with increasing marital problems so there’s the use of a narrator at times to clarify the flow of events, along with a cinéma vérité visual approach of a camera constantly trying to keep up with the action of the characters, as well as some jump cutting when they move too fast to anticipate. Perry and his effective cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, note the influence of Allen’s film in this regard also, as they use handheld-closeup-images that dominate the screen with their characters’ faces rather than giving much emphasis to the environments that they inhabit, which is what they love about “the haphazardness that is embraced throughout” Allen’s much-earlier-inspiration (here's a cluster of videos from Husbands and Wives—some with non-English subtitles if that makes them more accessible—if you need a refresher or an introduction to that work). That images-caught-on-the-fly-strategy and the use of a lot of chronological-collaging works well for Listen Up Philip when combined with the narration device because the scenes that aren’t set up by the off-screen-omnipotent-voice then feel a bit random, directionless, as if they’re also jump-cut into the overall flow of the narrative, forcing us to work more actively in keeping the 3 main characters connected during the times when we’re retracing past events or understanding what fictional film often doesn’t show us: the ongoing lives of major supporting characters which we often have no access to when we’re focused on the central member of the cast (Philip in this case). During this process we see the continuing personal calcification of Ike while Ashley’s life without her former lover really begins to open up, so much so that she has a stoop sale (not easy for others to get to whatever yard you might have behind your place in this Brooklyn neighborhood) in which she cheaply dumps copies of Philip’s first novel, suggesting they’d make good drink coasters.
Another strong point of … Philip is its willingness to show the caustic pettiness that surrounds our title character, so that even as we’re reaffirmed in distaste for him (finally softened just before the end with the information that his parents—with his mother pregnant—were killed in a car wreck when he a young boy, leaving him to be raised by his uncle) we see the shallow negativity in others who have no reason to be so obnoxious (Ike, with his established reputation; Yvette [pictured in the paragraph just above], with solid academic credentials yet a jealousy of Philip simply because he’s now the youngest member of her departmental faculty so that any success she has won’t seem quite so astounding anymore). Philip’s hardly ever an attractive character—a hard-sell in a narrative medium that thrives on granting preconceived and reinforced expectations of ultimate nobility in the protagonist, rewarded with some sort of success—but in seeing what it takes to succeed in the shrinking, struggling, cutthroat worlds of publishing and academia we get a better understanding of why such bitter characteristics can lead to a more self-centered-“triumph” than we assumed would be the outcome, reminding us that sunny lives such as what Ashley’s becomes are an inspirational dream to be embraced for those who can attain them, but in a competitive culture such as ours the self-generated-isolationism that protects Philip from being too influenced by the needs of others around him may be more of the actual price of success than we usually care to admit. Listen Up Philip is a grim film but well-conceived and delivered, for those who will venture to expose themselves to such a potentially-soul-numbing-story.
All who venture in Men, Women & Children seem to find that their investments just don’t pay off, not because they’re not up to the challenge of competition but because life just seems to be beyond the value of the struggle to begin with, beating down almost everyone who dares to hope for more than complacency. Don and Helen may find a level of continued tolerance after their extramarital escapades but I don’t see much in their lives that will rekindle that mutual fire long ago burned out; Donna has lost all credibility with Hannah for now, although her awakening to the sordid limits she was pushing her daughter to may help her find some peace with Kent; Kent and Donna both have a lot of letting go to do of their anger toward their past failed relationships, just as Patricia is learning to release her iron grip on Brandy, but I can’t imagine that Momma Bear will be able to handle the increasing independence of her cub without a lot of trauma; hopefully, Tim and Brandy will stabilize each other as they try to work through the past difficulties with their neurotic parents, but they’ll also have to keep pushing back against the oppressive high-school-norms of their classmates where athletic guys who don’t embrace sports and girls who actually read words on paper, not just on smartphone screens, will continue to be ostracized; and, as for poor Allison, maybe she’ll learn to embrace a cheeseburger and a milkshake once in awhile (while her burning-metabolism-body can still handle such input—those were the days, my friend, we [Boomers] thought they’d never end) but she’d better hope that her mistakes don’t bring out the kind of fury from her father (played by J.K. Simmons) in this environment that this same actor shows in the fabulous Whiplash (Damien Chazelle; review in our October 16, 2014 posting) or she’s in for real trouble (hopefully, he’ll be more like his forgiving persona as the father of another girl with normal sexual urges—although without the trauma faced by Allison but instead the difficult decision of accepting a teenage pregnancy—in Juno [Reitman, 2007]). Yet, with all of the continuing troubles that all of these characters face, they’re probably closer now to what this script wants to contemplate with its final imagery and narrated commentary of our Earth as just a tiny blue speck as seen from billions of miles away, the ultimate isolation in our solar system with nowhere else to turn but ourselves for human companionship and understanding, just as our environmentally-besieged-planet is our only hope for species-continuance (there may be other planetary options in other genres, such as we’ll soon explore in the sci-fi Interstellar [Christopher Nolan], but these struggling Austinites in Men, Women & Children know that, like Alvy Singer's Brooklyn, central Texas isn’t expanding so they have to work harder to make what they’ve got now more habitable, even when it seems they have little to hope for).
Bottom Line Final Comments: I seriously hope that for those of you who get a chance to see Listen Up Philip (I can’t imagine wide distribution of such a downer film—although there’s some nice satiric comedy mixed in as well, along with enough jumping around in narrative time and space to give your perceptual muscles a good workout) that you avail yourselves of the opportunity because this potentially-dismal-topic is handled very well, the acting is first-rate for all of the principal players, and there’s an honesty here about the human spirit that you’d normally find more easily only in highbrow novels and independent-foreign-language-films. Don’t go unforewarned about what a crass prick Philip is most of the time, but with the knowledge that the intent is to explore the workings of his fiercely-covered-up-self-loathing (he knows that he’s clearly on Ike’s highway to hell but embraces it anyway) rather than to see it redeemed, I think
you'll find plenty to appreciate here. As for Men, Women & Children the social-warning-intentions may be better than the produced result (certainly that’s the current published critical consensus, as noted far above regarding the Tomato Throwers and the lofty Metacritics) because there’s just so damn much going on here, it’s generally all so terrible for the involved characters, and it can easily come off as preachy about the horrors of the overuse and addiction of social media to the detriment of involved human interaction (although Men … may be getting some of the same type of from-the-filmmakers’-perspective-off-target-responses as did Juno, which was seen by some as just a simple pro-life argument in the abortion debate, a position rejected by many critics, social-action-groups, and Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody). I’ll accept that some of those rejections are valid, but I do think that this film can help put us into a dialogue about how modern First World-life (there are other, much-more-critical-situations undermining human existence in war-torn/poverty-stricken-areas of our isolated little sphere) is becoming so techno-driven, so removed from true interpersonal contact that we’ve become the “dark side” of the high-tech-electronically-interconnected Global Village prophesized by Marshall McLuhan decades ago. The film finishes with the observation that we’re all we’ve got, but that’s only if we interface with each other, not some avatar of humanity playing out attractive war or sex games on variously-sized-screens.
As for my usual Musical Metaphor to cap all of this off, I could turn to songs from these films, such as The Supremes’ “I Hear a Symphony” (from the 1966 album of the same name) used with the Listen Up Philip closing credits in an ironic manner (but also applying ironically to the cluster of images, musical selections, and nature sounds carried on Voyager I to help explain our existence in case it ever encountered some alien civilization out there somewhere—which fictionally, it did; again see the first of the Star Trek movies) or I could borrow from the Men, Women & Children soundtrack for the Hall and Oates tune “She’s Gone” (from the 1973 Abandoned Luncheonette album), which takes us into the shared regret throughout both of the films under consideration this week because that song addresses not only specific female lost loves by specific male main characters but, in a broader sense, the loss within those males as well, as so many of the folks we observe in these 2 stories lose themselves to ego, fear, boredom, despair, and the like. However, while you’re welcome to search out either or both of those songs on your own, I’ll go another direction with this pair: (1) The Eagles “Lyin’ Eyes” (from the 1975 One of These Nights album) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIyfyserYEo (a live 1995 performance, in New Zealand I think), which speaks to the many lies the characters in both of these narratives tell themselves and each other, not just about cheating on a spouse but more broadly about cheating on ourselves, because: “My, oh my, [we] sure know how to arrange things, [We] set it up so well, so carefully, Ain’t it funny how [our] new [lives] didn’t change things, [We’re] still the same old [fools we] used to be.” (2) As noted from my first posting (October 9, 2014, with reviews of Gone Girl [David Fincher] and The Drop [Michaël R. Roskam]) after seeing Elton John in concert in San Jose, CA back on Oct. 2, I found songs he sang to be appropriate for my next rounds of reviews (having viewed some of the films at early press screenings), especially this one, “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” (from the 1976 Blue Moves album) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTvtqYQ-OrI (1994 concert at the Greek Theatre, Los Angeles), which speaks to me of the difficulties that most of the people in these 2 films have in facing their limitations, the hurt they’ve caused others, the necessary steps needed to be taken to repair the damage. Tim’s father and Brandy’s mother are the best at making their way toward such a change, Don and Helen seem to think they can only move forward without speaking this crucial word (because of all else they’d also have to say in admitting the need for it), and Philip probably never says it to anyone, much to his own steady inner demise. Maybe a lot of these folks should add Elton’s tune to their smartphone playlists until they can sing it themselves. Maybe we could all sing along on a couple of choruses while our little planet continues to spin into its night cycle, waiting for a brighter dawn to break forth in dazzling glory.
If you’d like to know more about Listen Up Philip here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLS6IhGOue4 (8:55 interview from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival with director Alex Ross Perry and actor Jason Schwartzman)
If you’d like to know more about Men, Women & Children here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GoqnFzq0qg (36:44 interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, September 2014 [begins with the same trailer from the above link, then a promo for the festival], with director/co-screenwriter Jason Reitman, actors Jennifer Garner, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Adam Sandler, along with co-screenwriter Erin-Cressida Wilson—overall the audio is a bit low)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.