By Kyle G. King. If you’ve ever pined for a life of fame, you’ve undoubtedly imagined that – once you’d made it – there is satisfaction to be found in drowning your naysayers in your success. That emotion of unfiltered bumptiousness may seem like a trifling identity for most of us to temporarily take on, but in Alex Ross Perry’s newest film Listen Up Philip, that arrogant, captious persona is assumed by Perry’s star Jason Schwartzman, and the pair don’t run with it so much as they take a leisurely stroll alongside it.
Listen Up Philip is Perry’s third directorial feature, his first with Schwartzman. Perry, who also penned the screenplay, says the titular role was not written specifically with Schwartzman in mind; but to say that the character plays to Schwartzman’s strengths would be a gross understatement. Having never found a reason to change himself, Philip is Max Fischer all grown up, and Perry doesn’t merely assign Schwartzman to Philip; he analytically takes Schwartzman’s id to a new level of solipsism. Listen Up Phillip offers that same breed of character found in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore: self-servient and hardly polite, older but far from wiser.
The film opens on a side street in New York City, accompanied by the omniscient narration of Eric Bogosian. But where the application of a narrator tends to be an obvious or annoying tactic, Bogosian’s voice is experienced and comforting. There’s a feeling that you are being read a hardcover book by the man as he sits in a lush, cozy chair. He ranges the mood from quaintly straight-faced (Alec Baldwin in The Royal Tenenbaums) to wickedly verbose (Hugh Ross in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). His storybook nature is not accidental: the film is presented in an episodic format, not dissimilar to chapters found in a novel, and the film is shot in Super 16mm (half the quality of most movies which are typically shot in 35mm), which evokes a vintage richness in picture. The film doesn’t focus on a clean storyarc or anybody’s explicit goal, but rather offers up a company of complex characters fit for acute exploration. Even at their best, these people are poignantly snobbish but always rude with civility, like British characters speaking with American accents. Listen Up Philip is styled very deliberately to be a book presented as a film.
Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzmann) is eager to project a specific image of himself as a novelist. He insists on wearing the same tweed jacket even in impractical summer weather. He suggests cliched and outrageous activities (“… set off fireworks, get arrested...”), and submits the idea of getting into a fight with and to another writer at his publishing company. While Philip should be ungrudgingly celebrating the budding success of his second novel, he chooses instead to wash himself in the comforts of his own misery. Philip aims to be a character in one of his stories more than he does a real person: as far as Philip is concerned, he would be poorly written if he were to simply enjoy himself. . Through the dense fog of his own misanthropy, he naturally finds himself at odds with both his live-in girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) and the city itself. Philip is eager to escape the shallow book promotions his publisher demands and the blunt reality that Ashley’s photography career is indeed more successful than his own as an author. When one of his idols, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), reads Philip’s latest novel, he offers Philip a refuge at his summer home upstate. Feeling the need for a weekend away, Philip accepts the offer.
The title Listen Up Philip dictates that most of the film’s attention will be paid to Schwartzman. But Perry, a young filmmaker who boasts a wizened bravado, doesn’t staunchly follow Philip immediately upstate to Ike’s summer home. The film instead spends a respectable portion of its time with Ashley. This time away from Philip gives the story some breathing room from the title character’s overwhelming pomposity. It also shines some perspective on Philip from before he was published, as Ashley ponders what attracted her to somebody so clearly detestable. While it may not pass the bechdel test, this chapter offers a refreshing female voice with Ashley, and Elisabeth Moss delivers a subtle and fierce performance. Philip and Ashley’s arguments and conversations are well-balanced in ego and self-deprecation thanks to the nuance of both Schwartzman and Moss.
Upstate, Philip and Ike validate themselves and each other through their egotistical power dynamics. They spout dialogue that reads as extremely pretentious, but it is delivered in an appropriately stylish manner.Their dual personalities of extreme narcissism might go forever unchecked if not for the arrival of Ike’s outspoken, if not similarly spiteful, daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter). She is another welcome female voice in this world of big male egos, but like Ashley, Melanie is no angel: she has similarly cutting dialogue that sheds light on the repercussions of Ike’s years of womanizing and egotism. Perry again shies away from Philip for a chapter to show how Ike’s actions through the years have taken a toll on his daughter, and in turn, himself. It shows a respect for his characters and provides a balance for them all, leaving none behind to feel minor.
What Listen Up Philip chronicles is a story of vapid meaninglessness and deplorable people. What wins you over is the inherent deadpan nature of the characters and their relatably melodramatic dialogue and disposition. Perry is a talent capable of writing plucky charming details that all smartly support a cast of well crafted characters(stay through the credits for satirical titles of Ike Zimmerman’s novels). He is also not afraid to trust others: all of the acting in his film is natural and fresh, not overly controlled or clenched. The cinematography too is bold and evocative, with often tight composition and shaky steadicam tracking.
The upper-middle class thirty-something bearded white male with a college degree, living in a pseudo-bohemian New York is a extremely tired device, yes. But Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip offers that device freely, unafraid to explore it honestly or burn it appropriately. “You only want to be thought of as a talented writer, not as a real person” is a maxim that should tell you how seriously you ought to take this tale of people who take themselves far too seriously.