It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that Listen Up Philip presents a man, specifically an author, living two lives. One is a life of the corporeal, human behavior and feelings with repercussions on those close to him personally, the other is a life of intellect, creativity and imagination, which satisfies personal ego and impacts, however fleetingly, those who read his books. The drama of the film stems from the titular character’s sacrifice of one life over the other. Which one he chooses will make him either a hero or a villain. Director and screenwriter Alex Ross Perry wastes no time establishing which he is.
Third-person omniscient narration prattled off by Eric Bogosian in an authoritative deadpan, as if he were at a book reading, informs us that Philip (Jason Schwartzman), who is walking down a New York City street with a furrowed brow is “characteristically not in a hurry but enraged by slow foot traffic in front of him.” When he sits at a diner counter the narrator speaks of a familiar “stage of rage” that has overtaken him due to the tardiness of his ex-girlfriend. When she appears, he tries to shrug it off, but ends the “date” by walking out without ordering and refusing to give her a copy of his new book he said he has personalized with a dedication to her.
Perry has set up a movie to make Philip Lewis Friedman, played by a note-perfect Schwartzman, one of the pettier, unsympathetic dicks committed to screen in a long time. The voice-over narration reveals motivation and often conflicting feelings of angst and ennui. It’s as if Philip lives and destroys relationships so he might inform his writing, and it makes for a heck of a funny film if you can stomach the anti-hero as protagonist.
The audience is not allowed to judge that his writing is any good, but we are told that it is. That is all that matters because this a film not concerned with the craft of creativity as much as it is interested in the formation of the persona of the creator. When we meet Philip, he is only just finished his second novel, but we are told he is on his way to a very successful career as a writer. It’s no secret that Perry based this film on the acclaimed writer Philip Roth, so those with some insight into the life the writer, who has been known to have influenced Perry, might get extra satisfaction from the comedic drama of Listen Up Philip. But those who are not are still in for a heck of a hilarious ride into comedic irony that speaks to the creative soul entanglement with true human relations.
Philip is a huge narcissist. His consistent failure to sympathetically connect with those outside of him from one beat to the next gives Listen Up Philip a sort of sadomasochistic humor firmly trenched in Woody Allen and Larry David, albeit a bit darker. There is a sense of hopelessness for this man to connect. He hardly shows any despair about this quality, and if he does it’s only because he might feel he failed not others but himself. It’s presented as a vivid conundrum via his suffering current lover, played with forgiving heart by Elisabeth Moss. Ashley is certainly strong in her own right as a working photographer with her own creative side, yet she struggles to stay afloat in his wake. He seems more domestically satisfied when a more famous writer, with a lengthy but faltering career (a steely but tired Jonathan Pryce), invites him to his country home to finish his third book. That this man seems like an aged doppelgänger, beard and all, should serve as a warning post, but for Philip, the ego maniac, he has found a mentor to aspire for.
Schwartzman proves a perfect pick for the lead role. Philip’s remote yet determined attitude harkens back to his role as a teenager in the film that put him on the map as an actor: Rushmore. Philip is what the sociopathic aspiring overachiever Max Fischer would have become had he lost his virginity to Miss Cross.
Moss is also given a period of time in the middle of the film to carry the movie, and she shines with warm grace. While Philip heads off to the country and later accepts an adjunct position as a creative writing professor at a university, she takes the time to grow familiar with the comfort of his absence. The time away from Philip reveals what a weight he bore on her, and when he returns, the audience will have every right to root for her own desires over his, a power she can only find with distance.
Shot in Super 16mm, the director harnesses the power of the medium for the intimacy required of his subject and themes. Faces are tightly framed by the format, highlighting the actors’ expressiveness. Listen Up Philip needs this intimacy, which is hardly played for sentiment. Close-ups highlight often conflicted faces, which enhance the declarative, oft-present narration, which digs deep into the tumultuous emotions that inform Philip’s behavior, who cannot ever seem to genuinely communicate and connect with those around him. Sometimes the voice-over narration drowns out dialogue because it’s the world inside that Philip cares more deeply about.
Listen Up Philip is a film not only incredibly concerned with the internal world of the writer but also the dual nature of identity. There is no middle ground for Philip, he must choose between the people who want to love him or be loved by strangers who have not had the misfortune of meeting this cretin in the flesh. The film presents that vividly with strong performances, creative filmmaking and witty writing. It’s a tragic comedy that balances both sides to present a thoroughly watchable movie informed by a pained personal wisdom, so thanks to Perry for digging as deep as he does to present one of the year’s most fascinating and funny character studies of a real a-hole.
Listen Up Philip runs 109 minutes and is not rated (it’s got cursing and some sexual stuff [can’t recall if its graphic]). It opens in the South Florida area exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Oct. 31. The cinematheque provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. It only recently opened in theaters across the U.S. and will be expanding across cinemas for the rest of the year. For other screenings, visit this link.