Alienating Leading Men: The Force Behind 'Listen Up Philip' And 'Majeure' NPR film critic Bob Mondello reviews Listen Up Philip and Force Majeure — two movies, he says, with compelling lead men who are impossible to empathize with.
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Alienating Leading Men: The Force Behind 'Listen Up Philip' And 'Majeure'

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Alienating Leading Men: The Force Behind 'Listen Up Philip' And 'Majeure'

Review

Movie Reviews

Alienating Leading Men: The Force Behind 'Listen Up Philip' And 'Majeure'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Back in 1940 in a review of the Broadway musical "Pal Joey."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "PAL JOEY")

CORNISH: A New York Times critic famously asked whether a show with a cad for hero could ever really work for audiences. How could you draw sweet water, he wondered, from a foul well? Times have changed. We don't even think about cads these days. Audiences are so used on-screen jerks and antiheroes that Bob Mondello says two new movies, "Listen Up Philip" and "Force Majeure," actually encourage us to dislike their leading men.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The title character in "Listen Up Philip" is a young writer whose early success has made him pretty much insufferable. Here he is played by Jason Schwartzman with his publisher.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LISTEN UP PHILIP")

JASON SCHWARTZMAN: (As Philip Friedman) Hey, quick thought I just had. I'm not doing any press for the book at all - readings, interviews, nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You cannot be serious.

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Philip Friedman) Oh, quite.

MONDELLO: Here's Philip with his ex-girlfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LISTEN UP PHILIP")

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Philip Friedman) This was for you. It's an advanced copy. I'd even written a little note in the dedication page and everything. But you know something? You don't support me and never did so you don't get this gift from me.

MONDELLO: Here's Philip with his current girlfriend, after an older writer convinces him to spend some time away from her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LISTEN UP PHILIP")

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Philip Friedman) I'm doing what's best for me.

ELISABETH MOSS: (As Ashley Kane) Yeah, you're doing what you're best at. You're looking out for your own self-interest without thinking about how it might affect me or anybody else.

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Philip Friedman) I hope this will be good for us. But especially for me.

MONDELLO: Real sweetheart, right? But then director Alex Ross Perry lets you see Philip with this great man he so wants to emulate - the miserable great man who's reportedly loosely modeled on another Philip, Philip Roth. This guy has the acclaim and success Philip still craves and what's it gotten him? His daughter loathes him, his life bores him to the point that he's got nothing better to do than poison the worldview of a kindred spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LISTEN UP PHILIP")

JONATHAN PRYCE: (As Ike Zimmerman) Don't make yourself anymore miserable than you need to be. Give that to the women you love. That's what they're pretty there much therefore.

MONDELLO: What the women are therefore in "Listen Up Philip" is to be truth tellers to these childish novelists, especially Philip's eventually assertive girlfriend played by Elisabeth Moss, who ends up using his books as coasters in a long and welcome mid-movie detour from the story of his self-involvement. It's gratifying to watch her mature as the film's men play in their literary sandbox, petulantly provoking everybody around them. "Force Majeure" initially seems to have a much more ingratiating leading man - Tomas, a strong, manly father-figure on a ski trip with his wife and two kids. But hit by the irresistible force majeure of the title, this rock-solid guy crumbles into adolescent anxiety. It happens while the family's sitting on a balcony as one of the ski slope's controlled avalanches, designed to prevent bigger avalanches, starts to seem not very controlled. It comes down the mountain straight at the resort and at the camera. And well, there's no other way to say it - mom grabs the kids, dad grabs his cellphone and runs. Though no one is hurt, Tomas' abandonment of his family festers and later in a bar, when he plays macho and pretends his wife was the one who was scared, she doesn't let them get away with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FORCE MAJEURE")

OHANNES BAH KUHNKE: (As Tomas) You got a bit afraid.

LISA LOVEN KONGSLI: (As Ebba) You got so scared that you run away from the table.

KUHNKE: (As Tomas) What? No, I did not, no.

MONDELLO: As odd as it sounds, director Ruben Ostlund manages to make Tomas's crisis of masculinity - his not having lived up to expectations that even he shares - as funny as it is appalling. What so shocks Tomas's wife about her husband and what - if we're honest, makes him unnerving to us in "Force Majeure" - is that he's a reminder that our first impulses don't always reflect our best selves. This is a truth that Hollywood, which believes in heroes and hero worship, infrequently applies to men. And it's a truth that Swedish director Ostlund makes enormously engaging even as his leading man disengages, in a movie that is gorgeous and Alpine and as majestic as it is majeure. I am Bob Mondello.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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