Listen Up Philip is a third feature film of writer/director Alex Ross Perry who gained wider recognition with his screwball black comedy The Color Wheel in 2011. Full of sharp and dark humour (but also his most intellectually demanding film so far), it reminds us (both in style and substance) of the work of auteurs such as Whit Stillman, Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson. Perry seems to take their best features and combining them with his own artistic style. This is one of the best indies we’ve seen this year – and Alex Ross Perry is once again showing us that he has what it takes: he’s bold, he has edge and he’s not afraid of taking risks. He made his two protagonists the most annoying, obnoxious, unrelatable and above all, insufferable characters imaginable. An extremely bold move that made this indie an instant hit at the festivals and got nothing but praise from the film critics, but that will probably get much hate from occasional movie-goers who tend to watch films for all the wrong reasons – to relax and have a good time.
Listen Up Philip is a cynical, misanthropic even, portrayal of privileged, white middle-class New York writers, who in pursue of building their mysterious artistic identity, destroy all their relationships and get to live in complete isolation, with nothing to accompany them but their own suffocating ego and narcissism. This is not an easy watch and it is also not one of those films that will lighten your mood and make you sleep better. It will, on the contrary, make you lose all hope in humanity.
Film’s main character Philip Louis Friedman (played by Jason Schwartzman) is a narcissistic, self-absorbed douche-bag of a writer, who is about to release his second novel. We can only guess that he was never really capable of any modesty or empathy towards other people, but his ego suddenly gets blown out of the proportions, as fame gets into his head months before his novel’s publication.
We get to know Philip’s story through an omniscient voice-over narrator (Eric Bogosian), who all-knowingly guides us into Philip’s world and analyses his behaviour in a way that feels like listening to a literary prose. He introduces us to Philip’s state of mind after finishing his novel, anticipating its release, and to his relationship with an understanding and unbelievably tolerant girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss).
But what really begins the drastic change in Philip’s life is when he learns that his literary idol, a legendary novelist Ike Zimmerman, liked the advanced copy of his book. He immediately makes contact with him and it’s not long before he’s invited to spend a few months in the solitude of Zimmerman’s summer house, away from all the distractions of New York City. Zimmerman, who hasn’t published a book in over six years, is thrilled to take Philip under his wing as his protégé, teaching him how to excel in being a self-absorbed narcissistic writer (“You are selfish and unsentimental. An admirable trait, if you ask me.“) and reliving his past days of fame along the way. Philip is, of course, thrilled that his life-time idol has become his mentor. But what he doesn’t realize when he happily and without any hesitation embraces Zimmerman’s advices on how to become an artistic genius, is that his mentor is in fact his path to self-destruction. There is no doubt that Philip will eventually become Zimmerman himself – a miserable old man, who lost all his friends and family due to his feeling of superiority and self-importance, fixated on his past success and unable to write anything of artistic value anymore.
Under Zimmerman’s diligent guardianship, Philip withdraws further into himself and starts to alienate everyone around him – including Ashley, whom he leaves alone in their New York apartment without any information about when he’s coming back. This is when the film (otherwise focused on the two male protagonists) takes an interesting and surprising turn: Perry decides to leave Philip behind for a while, at a rural liberal arts college where he starts teaching creative writing, and stays in New York with Ashley who is dealing with the fact that he so arrogantly left her behind after she supported him for years, sacrificing her own professional opportunities to do so. It is amazing that otherwise male-oriented film gets a whole chapter dedicated to a woman – and what Moss does with it is nothing but extraordinary. But the film still remains too male-centred, in a sense that even as she gets her own chapter, this chapter is dedicated to her emotional roller-coaster after their breakup, instead to her ambitiousness and intelligence. Zimmerman’s estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) also deserved to be a more complex character, instead of being there just to show us what an awful person Zimmerman is. So, while the male characters get all the intellectual dialogues, women get to be their emotional binary opposition; and while the male characters are pursuing their dreams, building their careers, women are left behind, picking up the pieces.
All the criticism aside, this is still an interesting and engaging watch that should not be missed. Not to mention Schwartzman, who was certainly born for a role like that. He always exceeded in playing smart, well-read, eloquent, but somewhat cynical characters, but this time he managed to portray a character who is all that, but who is also ignorant, insensitive, self-indulgent and – let’s be honest – kind of annoying to watch. His portrayal of an awful, despicable human being is nothing short of brilliant and it may very well be his best role to date.
Directed by: Alex Ross Perry
Written by: Alex Ross Perry
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter
Running Time: 108 minutes