Listen Up Philip

 

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter

Director: Alex Ross Perry

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


With Listen Up Philip, writer-director Alex Ross Perry has proven himself an acute satirist of New York societal norms. His last film, The Color Wheel, was a brilliant jet-black comedy that pulled a third act transgressive switcheroo deconstructing Brookyn hipster culture, revealing Perry as a filmmaker with more on his mind than simply uncomfortable comedy. Here, he seems to be making a picture about unchecked narcism and the need for artists to succeed on their own terms to the detriment of those around them. Though it centers on writers with huge aspirations, literature isn't even that important to the film's success. In fact, Perry purposefully refuses to give us snippets from the novels written by the titular character (played by Jason Schwartzman), instead simply showing a variety of clever book covers in the mold of novelist Philip Roth.

Clearly, plot and narrative aren't important to Perry, and Listen Up Philip will be a tough slog for those wanting a three-act structure and character development. It will also be excruciating for those hoping to empathize with the central protagonist, an unbelievably self-absorbed and misanthropic young writer whose incessant bitching about his first-world problems proves to be his only attribute. In the hands of the wrong actor, this could have been a death knell, but Schwartzman is such an interesting performer and his way of delivering Perry's acidic dialogue so effortless, that Philip's constant misery becomes almost a joy to witness. Joy, though, is not something Perry is going for here, and there are very few instances where his characters seem to find even a measure of happiness.

Philip's attempts to publish a followup to his wildly successful first novel, his fractured relationship with long-suffering girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), and a burgeoning friendship with novelist idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), formulates the basis for Perry's merciless attack on the artistic elite. While Schwartzman is pitch-perfect here as a man in love with his own self-imposed persona, the heart and soul of the film belongs to Moss, who imbues Ashley with pangs of vulnerability that makes her an audience surrogate. In one of Perry's most incisive decisions, he splits the movie into three parts where the action follows all three characters, though Philip's presence always looms in the background. The middle section, where Perry focuses on Ashley trying to get over her separation from Philip, are some of the film's best moments, partially due to the fact that we are given a breather from Philip's insufferable narcissism, but also because Moss is such a sympathetic presence. In one key scene, Moss delivers a tour de force of conflicting emotions after one of Philip's ill-advised visits after their breakup, and being a smart director, Perry leaves his camera fixed solely upon her face in tight closeup. Pryce, meanwhile, is wonderful as the elderly self-loathing writer; a man who recognizes something of his younger self in Philip, and is simultaneously cruel and protective of him. It's a sinister performance; broiling with resentment, disappointment, and arrogance, but Pryce also layers his performance with flashes of subdued sadness, particularly in scenes opposite his estranged daughter (a fine Krysten Ritter). A sequence where he brings home some middle-aged women and attempts to seduce them, is a tragicomic set-piece for the ages; a free-flowing drunken ramble that feels slightly improvised and nonetheless completely unpredictable.

Listen Up Philip is clearly indebted to the works of other filmmakers, with it's 70's-influenced zoom lenses and vintage title cards recalling early John Cassaventes, while the jazzy soundtrack and omniscient male narrator brings Woody Allen to mind. Others may claim a Noah Baumbach influence here; especially in the way Perry fixates on self-involved literary New York types, ala The Squid and the Whale, but this isn't a case of direct pastiche. Instead, Perry's roving camerawork, penchant for tight closeups, and directorial looseness allows his actors a certain kind of freedom to inhabit their unlikeable characters in a way that feels separate from his influences. The overall point here seems to be a satirical stripping away of the romanticism we often get from reclusive geniuses toiling away in obscurity working on the next great work of American literature. In this way, Perry never lets his characters off the hook. Sentiment has no place in Philip's world, and we are meant to both laugh at the character's callousness as well as be disgusted at his relentless misanthropy. It's a neat trick, and Perry's writing; sharp, witty, sardonic, and often very funny, makes Listen Up Philip intensely watchable, despite the main character's all-encompassing boorishness.