'Listen Up Philip:' A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Jerk
Listen Up Philip opens as the young novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman, in the role of his career) offers a thorough dressing down to an ex-girlfriend and later a college classmate; a nastier, more directly pointed remix of the opening of The Social Network minus any of Zuckerberg's passive-agressiveness. The most acclaimed writer of this generation right on the eve of publishing his second novel, they never saw Philip's potential or lived up to their own. He wants them to know that he has no need for them now—what did they ever do? I am a brilliant young male living in Brooklyn, hear me roar.
Right off the bat Listen Up Philip sets a nasty tone and never relents. The third feature from Alex Ross Perry, its predecessor The Color Wheel only hinted at the levels of prickliness that Listen Up Philip delivers in droves. Philip is the textbook example of a narcissist, and one who can't find room for anybody else in his world except for his girlfriend Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss). She herself is also an artist, a photographer right on the precipice of her own breakout success, yet still held back financially and emotionally supporting Philip all these years. She somehow still harbors feelings of fondness for him, but any outside observer can see that they could use a break from each other.
Enter Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an elder curmudgeon novelist so obviously based on Philip Roth and a snapshot of what Schwartzman's own Philip will become in decades time. Ike takes Philip under his wing, inviting him to write at his country retreat and offering a few takedown jabs of his own ("I loved your book. Of course I had achieved considerably more than you by now."). Philip's time at the county home serves as a preview of his future. Ike lives with his daughter (Krysten Ritter), her bitterness an artifact of too many bridges irreparably burned. He uses the house to remain in geographical and emotional isolation.
Director Alex Ross Perry is stubbornly retrograde, using typewriters in place of personal computers on the desks of the writers despite the contemporary setting. A note near the end of the credit roll proclaims that Listen Up Philip was shot on handheld 16mm film, which lends an film intense intimacy with its intense close-ups on the faces of its characters and the ugliness of male ego. Blowing up the graininess of the filmstock for the big screen recalls John Cassavetes' urban melodramas in shades. The milieu of autumnal New York domestic strife hearkens to Woody Allen's late 80s/early 90s work (particularly Husbands And Wives). But even amidst all of the dreariness and verbal daggers, Listen Up Philip is a blithely hilarious film. Ike and Philip are posited to be unquestionably brilliant writers, even if the viewer is never afforded the chance to hear or read any of their work. But even the greatest artists need to be kicked down a notch. Particularly these two.
A voiceover delivered with indifference by Eric Bogosian becomes the key to Listen Up Philip, as it decentralizes the focus from the twin orbits of Ike and Philip's massive egos. With Philip away, Ashley takes over the narrative for the second act and Moss delivers one of the best performances of the year. Relieved of the suffocating burden of Philip, she claims their Brooklyn flat as her very own living and emotional space. The mere act of throwing away Philip's unread letters and lying in bed with her new feline companion (Alex Ross Perry's own cat) becomes a triumphant moment.
With his time away at the retreat and eventually teaching at a Northeastern liberal arts college, we see hints that Philip realizes the damaging nature of his personality. Listen Up Philip takes a turn for the tragic, and Philip becomes a prisoner of himself. A last ditch effort for redemption takes an inevitable turn for the worst. Even as the voiceover declares that he will go on to great heights and success, our young writer has hit the lowest point of his life. Having burrowed himself too far into a hole of self-absorption, Philip walks away from us with the possibility of never knowing happiness ever again. The film plays it off as a moment of melancholic euphoria. Life and all of its joys will go on, even around those that can't see past themselves.
Listen Up Philip opens today at the Sundance Sunset Cinema.