“Listen Up Philip” and “Birdman” – Reviews

25 Oct

Listen Up PhilipOh to be an artist! The, fame! The fortune! The women!!! The acclaim of the critics. The applause of an adoring audience. The bestseller list. Numero Uno at the box office. A Hotsy Boffo Weekend. The awards! The adulations!! The women!!!

The young up-and-coming artist fantasizes about this bounty, while the older, established one will occasionally contemplate why his youthful fantasies never quite came to fruition. One can be respected without truly loved, be alone, unhappy, and still creatively successful. In the storytelling biz, we call that irony.

Two new films, Listen Up Philip and Birdman, deal with cranky, self-involved artists who confuse professional respect for personal love, cannot help but be jealous of their peers, and isolate themselves from the simplest of human philanthropy.

One could easily think that Listen Up Philip is about Philip Roth, the acclaimed author of Portnoy’s Complaint and American Pastoral. First, there’s the title, second a slew of books within the film resemble Roth’s distinct cover designs. And finally there’s Ike Zimmerman, played with an aging bellicose air by Jonathan Pryce. Ike, the great old lion of American letters has taken Philip – the young upstart of American letters – under his wing.

Philip, played by Jason Swartzman, is filled with a narcissism so revolting it’s at once comical and depressing. He lives with his girlfriend, Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), but resents that her career as a photographer is slightly ahead of his own as a novelist. He tells his publisher that he won’t do any press of any kind for his new book, because he wants to adopt the persona of The Aloof Novelist. When a young woman at a bar kisses him, he is not put off because he has a girlfriend, but because kissing in public is “gauche.” Yes, he’s the kind of guy who uses gauche to describe unpleasant situations.

Then he meets Ike, who loves Philip’s novel and invites him to his country house for the summer. Ike’s motivations are not completely selfless; he seeks the young blood of a protégé in order to loosen his own creative blocks. Ike, we soon discover is basically an older version of Philip. He exists within a small solipsistic world, one where he and his writing are paramount, with personal relationships always riding in the back seat, or trunk.

Listen Up Philip is novelistic in its construction, leaving Philip for long stretches to follow around Ashley or Ike. The never-intrusive voiceover narration by Eric Bogosian is dryly comic and insightful, reminiscent of the tone of a piece of great contemporary literature.

Scwhartzman is perfectly cast here, not necessarily because he is a great actor (he’s not), but because Philip feels written for an actor whose characters are often snarky snobs, wryly tossing bon mots like Molotov cocktails. It’s Jonathan Pryce who is revelatory here (not that he hasn’t been before). He’s both gregarious and childish, warmhearted and petulant. Watching him sit at his typewriter stifled by writer’s block as the voiceover explains his mindset is more engaging than a summer of superhero movies.

But Philip is the central character here. Like Ike, he is adept at destroying personal relationships without actually realizing he’s destroying personal relationships. As a prototypically selfish artist, he believes that people should love him not for who he is but for what he does. Often miserable, he only truly comes to life when his work is praised.

Both Ike and Philip are fatalists, almost nihilists, which turns each of them into a walking cliché of artistic misery. It’s not so much that they willfully sabotage their relationships; rather, they believe those relationships are doomed from the start, and nothing they do will ever be good enough to ensure anybody’s happiness, especially their own.

Philip is a frustrating character not so much because of his insufferability, but because of this entrenched unwillingness to be a better person. One wants to slap him and say, “Do you really want to be like Ike – this lonely, old (and arguably wildly successful) writer?” Because it’s not that he can’t be a decent person, it’s that he seems to perceive himself as a character in his own stories – distant, removed, fated from birth to live a certain (unhappy) existence.

One point Listen Up Philip makes certain the audience understands is that Philip is a good – perhaps even great – writer. Riggan Thomson, on the other hand, may be more of a hack. Or at least in his own mind he’s a hack. Well, part of his own mind thinks he’s a hack, the other part thinks that the hack part of him is the best thing he’s got going.


The hack was Birdman, a winged superhero that Riggan portrayed in three eponymous megahit films from the early 1990s. That’s what he’s known for. It’s what he believes he will always be known for. The guy who took all the money in the world, donned a Lycra suit and some prosthetic feathered wings, and cawed for a living.

Now he’s a washed-up guy whose most lucrative potential is going on a reality show as that guy who played that guy. You know, that guy, whatshisname.

Instead, to prove his own worth as an actor and as a man, he has adapted, is directing, and is starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love at the St. James Theatre in Times Square. It’s admittedly a foolish endeavor. Riggan is not an actor, as some point out, but a movie star. And even as a movie star, his career is pretty much over.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), takes place in and around the St. James during the days leading up to the premier of Riggan’s career-validating production. Everything that can go wrong does: an actor is injured (and threatens to sue) and is replaced by someone so Method he can get an erection on stage but not off it; his daughter/personal assistant is fresh out of rehab and blames Riggan for her shitty life; his girlfriend may be pregnant; a critic is lying in wait to savage the play and end is career; previews do not go swimmingly; Riggan can move things with his mind; and when he…

Oh, wait, did I say he can move things with his mind?

Yes, I did.

In fact, the very first (or is it the only?!) shot in the film finds Riggan in his dressing room meditating while floating a couple feet off the ground. The gravelly voice in his head asks, “How did we get here? It smells like balls.” That voice, the one that wants to do the reality show, the one that doesn’t understand why the hell Riggan would want to put everything on the line when he could just sign up for Birdman 4, is the hack, or the part of himself Riggan considers a hack.

Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who also portrayed a superhero back in the 1990s (Batman), and who also bailed on millions of dollars to do just one more sequel. (You’re welcome, Val Kilmer!) This is only one of the many meta in-jokes in Birdman. Trying to find a replacement for their injured actor, Riggan and his best friend/lawyer/producer Jake (a straight-laced(!) and thinned-down(!!) Zach Galifianakis) brainstorm other possibilities – Michael Fassbender (doing X-Men, damn), Robert Downey Jr. (ach, shooting Iron Man), Jeremy Renner (avenging). The actor they finally hire, Mike, is portrayed by Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk). Talking candidly with his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), Riggan tells an anecdote about being on a near-plane crash with George Clooney (also a Batman), and how if the plane had gone down everyone would’ve remembered Clooney, but not Riggan Thomson.

But Birdman is not about the artistic shortcomings of Hollywood. In some ways it accepts the fact that the fictional Birdman character, like Batman, Iron Man, and all the rest, make people happy. The film is not a clichéd hatchet job against comic book movies.

It’s also not a fawning sycophant to the supposed Legitimate Theater. It portrays both the sickly sweet sentimentality of Hollywood and the pretentious High Arty-ness of the stage with equal admiration and disdain. Which mirrors the schism in Riggan’s own mind: he is constantly unsure whether he is a good actor, whether his career as Birdman was one he should be proud or ashamed of, and whether he is good enough of an actor to do this production.

Keaton is great, funny, angry, at times very tender and sweet. Unlike the writer characters in Listen Up Philip, he is not primarily an asshole and secondarily a nothing. He’s a good guy, just one who has become overly consumed with being recognized for something, anything. Edward Norton (the mostly impotent Method actor), Emma Stone (rehabbed daughter), Naomi Watts (up-and-coming starlet), and Galifianakis are all terrific here, especially considering how this move was made.

There have been a lot of long takes in the history of cinema. The Copacabana scene in Goodfellas, the opening crane in Touch of Evil (playfully plagiarized in The Player), Children of Men, Atonement, and of course Hitchcock’s Rope. But nothing really compares to the derring-do pulled off by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Shot with fluid Steadicams and cranes, the movie looks as if it were done in single long take. Most shots are still longer than normal (minutes as opposed to seconds), with cuts disguised with whip pans, hidden wipes, and crafty time lapse dissolves.

This seemingly endless movement of camera and characters from place to place within the bowels of the St. James gives Birdman not just a sense of breathlessness, but also the feeling of magic that ties in perfectly with the magical realism of Riggan being able to move things with his mind. Like the Birdman movies within the film, Birdman is primarily a piece of entertainment. It’s an out-of-body high wire act pulled off by some remarkably skilled craftsmen, both in front of and behind the camera.

But if this were merely a cleverly orchestrated film, the praise would only be for the technical expertise. A film like Avatar is a beautiful, wonderfully crafted production. But it’s also vapid and empty from a story and character perspective. Birdman is anything but. Here, the crisp choreography mirrors the frenetic goings-on backstage. More so, it reflects the high wire Riggan is walking for so much of the movie. Just like we don’t want the movie to falter, we don’t want him to fall either.

And Birdman is weird. Just flat out uncanny at times. There’s a voice in his head, some weird possible telekinesis stuff going on, and lots of shots of men in their tighty whities. In some ways, to try to delve too deeply into Birdman is an insult to the film. Frankly, there’s a lot about this movie I just don’t understand (like the subtitle, which I have a theory about, but that’s about it). Birdman is Exhibit A to the philosophy that some art is simply beyond criticism, that trying to deconstruct something as odd as Birdman is as foolhardy as thinking you can get away with resurrecting your career by adapting Carver for the stage.

Maybe Birdman is telling us not to think too much about it. In the very first scene/shot of the film we see this quote tacked up in Riggan’s dressing room mirror: “A Thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” (I believe it was attributed in the film to Susan Sontag, who wrote the classic Against Interpretation, so there.)

So, perhaps everything I’ve written about this movie is meaningless. Whatever the movie is “about” it’s about, and you should probably just go figure it out on your own, if figuring it out is the point of Birdman, which it probably isn’t.

When I walked out of Birdman, I did not give a damn what the film was trying to convey to me, what it was about, what deeper meaning may be held within its two hour running time. What I did notice was that, standing on Houston Street on a Sunday night, I was more in tune with the world and life and those around me than I had been in a long time. It was like I was on some wonderful new drug that heightened all my sensations. Those feelings I usually took for granted – the weight of my feet on the ground, the crisp October air, the moon reflected off a puddle of water, the strange emptiness of a New York street – were now magnified. Everything was alive, streaming with color and brilliance. For all the shittiness the world can be, right then and there (and for a couple of days after), I was happy to live in and of this world.


Listen Up Philip: B+

Birdman: A

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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