Between its annual screenwriting lab and its regular habit of handing competition awards to young, un-established directors, Sundance has always been winningly committed to the discovery and promotion of new talent. There’s also pleasure in seeing the festival programmers eat a little crow, belatedly embracing filmmakers who they’ve previously snubbed. Three years after his scrappy, transgressive road comedy The Color Wheel got turned down by Sundance, Alex Ross Perry has been welcomed into the Park City club: His new comedy, Listen Up Philip (Grade: B+), premiered yesterday as part of the NEXT competition. Given that the movie features well-known actors—including Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, and Jonathan Pryce, among others—while Perry’s previous work did not, the lesson is pretty clear: Be weird, but do it with faces people recognize.
In truth, Listen Up Philip is decidedly less weird, and more accessible, than The Color Wheel; it could sit comfortably among the more palatable titles of the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Whereas that previous oddball triumph found Perry twisting and perverting mumblecore convention, Philip out-Baumbachs Noah Baumbach in its portrait of toxic narcissism. Schwartzman plays the title character, an insufferably smug New York City writer. The movie establishes its acerbic wit immediately, as Philip rubs his modest success—he’s got a second novel headed for bookstores—in the face of an ex-girlfriend and his old college roommate. The author will soon kamikaze his relationship with photographer Ashley (Moss) and fall into the company of a washed-up literary mentor, Ike (Pryce). Philip is an irredeemable cad, devoid of even the shred of decency Baumbach granted Greenberg. But Schwartzman, in one of his best performances since Rushmore, turns the character’s complete self-absorption into wickedly funny shtick. Was the part written for him or was he just the perfect choice to occupy it?
Introducing the film to a packed house at the Library Theater, Perry expressed his hope that viewers would feel by the conclusion that they had just torn through a good novel on a lazy winter day. The writer-director was referring, no doubt, to his literary gimmick: Playwright Eric Bogosian narrates the film, providing piercing, loquacious insight into the vulnerabilities of the characters. Perry also switches perspectives a couple times, a strategy that yields mixed results; I was ready to declare the film great once it abruptly shifted focus to Moss, who does real wonders with her character’s dejected-lover arc, but found my attention slipping a bit when Pryce’s alcoholic author hijacked the narrative. (Ike mainly seems to exist as a window into Philip’s future, a vision of the sad old bastard he’ll eventually become, so there was little need to grant him his own passage.)
Like many young filmmakers—and, it should be noted, plenty of budding novelists—Perry wears his influences on his sleeve. Through the narration, the casting of Schwartzman, and a hilarious montage of spot-on book jackets, Listen Up Philip sometimes resembles a more caustic, less stylized Wes Anderson creation. Perry also nourishes his clear affection for John Cassavetes, staging a better Faces-style party scene here than he did in The Color Wheel. These echoes aren’t the work of a shameless plagiarist, but a talented artist still refining his approach, taking what he likes from his heroes and shaping them into something new. Listen Up Philip may be uneven, but its critique of poisonous artistic ego—of the Henry Miller school of womanizing, “romantically” flawed wordsmiths—is pointed. Plus, the movie is frequently hilarious, offering an almost nonstop barrage of first-rate zingers and across-the-board good performances.
Speaking of good performances, there’s plenty of fantastic acting in The Skeleton Twins (Grade: B-), which casts Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as grown siblings who haven’t seen or spoken to each other in a decade, but are brought back together when the latter attempts to kill himself. The two are so completely credible as brother and sister, and so adept at balancing the dramatic and comedic components, that it’s relatively easy to forgive how programmatic the movie is on a whole. Pivoting around the incident that caused the split between its characters, the screenplay offers a very tidy vision of mid-life crisis, and Johnson directs with a heavy hand. But whenever the two leads are on-screen together, huffing gas in a dentist’s office or performing (just trust me on this one) a hysterical lip-sync duet, The Skeleton Twins comes to life. A part of me wishes that the movie would have just traded one set of indie clichés for another, and put the two on a road trip together—though that would have denied us the pleasure of Luke Wilson, very amusing as the big-hearted knucklehead husband of Wiig’s character.
Having already played Cannes and Toronto, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (Grade: A-) completes its festival run at Sundance, as part of the fest’s stuff-we-saw-and-loved-elsewhere Spotlight program. Like The Skeleton Twins, it’s largely a showcase for two actors—in this case, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, playing married vampires laying low among the “zombies” (their word for the humans). I tend to run hot and cold on Jarmusch, but Only Lovers is one of his best—a droll cousin to Wings Of Desire, replacing the melancholy angels of that modern classic with despondent, music-loving bloodsuckers. I can’t wait to write more about it when it opens in American theaters this spring.