Listen Up Philip (2014)
Dir: Alex Ross Perry
Jason Schwartzman’s title character in Listen Up Philip could easily be mistaken for a grown-up Max Fischer from Rushmore if you squint hard enough. To make the leap you’d first have to acknowledge that somewhere along the line Max’s enthusiasm and extracurricular achievements curdled into the arrogance and cold elitism of the titular character here. The connective tissue between those two roles is Schwartzman and his ineffable presence, both put to good to use in writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s literary-minded and caustically funny character study Listen Up Philip.
Schwartzman is Philip Friedman, an up and coming New York author on the eve of releasing his second novel. He’s introduced through omniscient and frequently hilarious narration (from Eric Bogosian) as he rushes through the crowded New York streets, angry at the slow-moving throngs but with no urgent destination in mind. Philip is going to meet an ex-girlfriend so that he can lord his (minor) accomplishments over her and chastise her lack of faith in him. It’s a great encapsulation of what drives this man – petty rivalries, the need for validation, and supreme arrogance. Others may pretend to be magnanimous but Philip doesn’t even bother; his world view is firmly centred on himself with a laser focus. Schwartzman brings his brusque intellectualism to the role and Philip transcends being just a supreme asshole. The character is not only watchable but magnetic in a train wreck kind of way. It’s like a Wes Anderson character devoid of whimsy and optimism and injected with a bone-deep cynicism that is at least entertaining to watch.
Shunning a book tour and angering his publisher in the process, Philip instead decides to leave his neglected girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) behind in the city while he regroups and focuses his creative energy at his elderly mentor’s upstate cabin. Sporting a thick beard and mercurial temperament, Jonathan Pryce is Ike Zimmerman, friend and confidant to Philip and a celebrated author in his own right. He’s introduced in a marvelous showcase for the film’s designers as his downward career trajectory is tracked over the decades through evolving book covers. It turns out that Ike has tired of his self-imposed solitude and in the doting yet prickly Philip sees a younger version of himself ripe for molding. The interplay between young student and elder teacher forms what may the most intriguing relationship of the film, as it becomes clear that Ike’s lonely end point is the path that Philip is barrelling towards.
The film does circle back to Ashley in the city, as she defines herself outside of her relationship with Philip and grows into her own skin more fully. Moss is great in the role, playing her character as a strong woman taking her first tentative steps outside of a confining relationship and finding her footing. Her character is given a full arc with a nice grace note at the end that eschews the usual chain of events. There are other love interests as well, like Joséphine de La Baume as Philip’s rival teacher-cum-lover at an upstate college, and a brief meetup with a former girlfriend that further reveals how difficult it must be to spend any amount of time with Philip. Krysten Ritter appears as Ike’s estranged daughter Melanie and that relationship is given time to breathe as well. Listen Up Philip has an episodic structure as it goes from one event to the next, even taking time to follow Ike on a sojourn with an elderly friend as they attempt to pick up women many years their juniors. It’s neat to see a movie move through different storylines with such confidence, leaving the main character off-screen for stretches at a time (though Philip’s presence is always felt).
Listen Up Philip also certainly looks unique, shot on 16 mm film and making great use of its locations. Whether it be New York City at night by bike or a bucolic upstate college framed by autumnal changes, it all feels like a real film and is refreshingly devoid of digital touches or modern encroachments. Those tools have their place, but it’s nice to have something tactile and organic now and then and it suits the tone of the film without being overwhelming or too twee. The camera moves around a lot (sometimes too much), perhaps in deference to Cassavetes’ talky films of the 70’s, with early Woody Allen and possibly Noah Baumbach as other touchstones. Centred around the insanely narcissistic Philip and given wordy life, Perry has accomplished a tough task and made a likeable character study brimming with intelligence and wit that focuses on a deeply unlikeable character.