The creative elite of New York are always a prime target for satire—so much money, yet so much malaise—but they’re rarely hit as mercilessly as in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip. The film, Perry’s third feature as director, centers around a young writer who is such a miserable human being that you have to wonder if any measure of success would make him happy. In fact, you have to wonder if he is anything more than his misery. His story isn’t about mastering the art of the novel, but about utterly failing at the art of living. As we watch his story unfold, each laugh brings a deeper sense of bleakness, a deeper shade of tragedy.
Jason Schwartzman stars as the title character, giving one of his best performances in years—or ever—as an up-and-coming literary star who happens to be an angry, sulky, self-centered son of a bitch. When he says things to his girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), like “I hope this will be good for us—but especially for me,” there’s no doubt he means them; that she manages to put up with him for more than a day illustrates both her power of perseverance and her willingness to be put upon, which together paint her as a paradoxical figure of both great strength and shameful weakness. Philip, though, notices nothing: he has just completed his second novel, which he knows is bound to cement his literary reputation, and such impending success allows him to settle old scores with his ex-girlfriend and a college friend by doing such constructive things as spewing abuse at them.
Schwartzman and Perry find little but petulance within Philip’s sense of superiority. The character assumes his intellectual prowess and literary genius place him on a plane higher than the rest of humanity—but once we’ve spent some time on that higher plane with him, we don’t see him achieve any perspective or humility, let alone maturity. Instead, Philip asserts his status through whining and tantrums, because as a misunderstood creative type, it’s his right to make everyone else as blankly miserable as he is, in thrall to his many hang-ups.
Philip is of course a nightmare for his publishers; he considers himself too important to bother to promote his work. (After all, not giving interviews will create an air of mystique.) But such an approach seems a little less feasible when he gets word that his novel won’t solely receive unqualified raves. However, the bad news comes with good news: Philip’s favorite writer, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), loved his book, and wants to meet him. Ike soon invites Philip to his house in Upstate New York to write.
The scenario echoes Philip Roth’s 1979 novel The Ghost Writer, and both writers—young and old—immediately bring to mind a Roth alter ego like Nathan Zuckerman (“Zimmerman” is too close a name to deny that connection, and then, of course, there is “Philip” the name itself). Roth liked to call attention to the autobiographical nature of his fiction, and indeed Listen Up Philip, replete with an omniscient voiceover narrator, wants both the audience and the characters to believe that all its happenings could end up—or already have ended up—in a novel. If that’s the case, whose novel it would be—the young novelist or his trusted mentor? Like Roth and Zuckerman, is there much of a difference?
Ike’s morbid relationship with Philip has questionable value for the young artist. As a literary icon, Ike has spent little time reflecting upon his worth or reconsidering his treatment of other people. Rather than give Philip a wake-up call, or some wisdom about the world and the people with whom he has to share it, Ike turns out to be a sort of Mega-Philip, encouraging the arrogance and disdain for others that already comes so naturally to Philip. Philip, then, finds no reason to not continue to worship his idol, to adopt Ike’s philosophies, going so far as to suddenly abandon Manhattan to write, even though his last two books didn’t seem to suffer from the locale. It’s only because Ike said so.
The late ’60s and ’70s marked the height of Roth’s and his literary followers’ appeal, and Listen Up Philip feels at home in that time, paying loving tribute to that era. Sean Price Williams’s Super-16mm grainy cinematography recalls Cassavetes, while Keegan DeWitt’s jazzy score and Teddy Blank’s title design luxuriate in a recognizably retro style. Modern technology presumably exists, but cell phones, social media and the like are all noticeably absent. Perry’s overall questions, then, seem neatly presented without overt criticism: Is the idea of an elite novelist obsolete when so many resources are available to all artists? Is the fact that such literary celebrities are going extinct a good or a bad thing, especially given such detestable people like Ike and Philip?
As much as the film is a throwback, Perry’s storytelling choices are far from classic and predictable. While the title and opening quarter of the film suggest that Philip will always be in the center of the narrative, Perry makes some structurally daring choices, shifting the focus and point of view first to Ashley, whom Philip abandons to go upstate and live with Ike, then to Ike and his neglected daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter). Location, narrative and time shift abruptly, while a straightforward, deadpan narrator (Eric Bogosian) links each section, providing internal and background information to put the characters in context. These segments initially seem like short detours, until Perry’s intent to follow through becomes clear. As such, they’re rather unsettling. By spending so long on Ashley’s storyline, Perry considers the impact of Philip’s behavior much more thoroughly than if she’d simply been forgotten during the moments that Philip forgets her.
Schwartzman’s bravado is so key to the film that it loses some of its edge when he’s gone, but the hole he leaves also reflects Ashley’s loneliness, and Moss captures that emotion with great sympathy. Philip’s neurotic energy is noticeably absent, but a break from him is probably best for both for the audience and Ashley. While her co-star has a collection of witty lines to chew, Moss has to communicate her emotional state without much dialogue. In one scene, the history of their relationship flits across her face in a series of heartbreaking expressions. Perry obviously cares deeply about this character, allowing her space from Philip to put the pieces of her life back together, and by doing so gives her time to become her own entity.
The women in this film supply most of its heart (which is another similarity, however well-tread, to the era and artists it emulates), and Moss and Ritter are up to that task. While Ashley is the film’s most likable character, Melanie has more bite, having spent her whole life putting up with her brilliant father’s thoughtlessness and cruelty. She immediately takes a dislike to Philip, her father’s pet project, who arrives at the upstate home at the same time she’s supposed to have it to herself. Ritter’s caustic persona matches Schwartzman’s, and the two actors compete in a verbal joust that, while entertaining, provides a parallel for Philip’s relationship with Ashley: if Ashley’s sadness is the result of Philip’s lack of compassion, then Melanie demonstrates the outcome of a much longer period of neglect from Ike. Melanie is Ashley’s future, and Philip’s glimpse of that horizon is telling.
Listen Up Philip follows Perry’s 2011 film The Color Wheel, and again he shows a willingness to explore the less pleasant aspects of his characters, finding humor in their flaws, but not without bedding them on a hard, cold mat of painful reality. His sensibilities may not inspire wide appeal—even kindred spirits like Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen make more effort to redeem their characters—but his work isn’t meant to let anyone off easy. With his accomplished cast in fine form, he pulls laughs from the most uncomfortable situations, and Philip thrives in wry observations, clever dialogue and a distinct visual instinct. This is the life led to make great art, Perry reminds us; can it ever be as fine as the art itself?
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de La Baume, Yvette Dussart, Jonathan Pryce, Eric Bogosian
Release Date: October 17, 2014