Directed by: Alex Ross Perry.
Written by: Alex Ross Perry.
Starring: Jason Schwartzman (Philip Lewis Friedman), Elisabeth Moss (Ashley Kane), Krysten Ritter (Melanie Zimmerman), Joséphine de La Baume (Yvette Dussart), Jonathan Pryce (Ike Zimmerman), Jess Weixler (Holly Kane), Dree Hemingway (Emily), Keith Poulson (Josh Fawn), Kate Lyn Sheil (Nancy), Yusef Bulos (Norm), Maïté Alina (Clare), Daniel London (Seth), Samantha Jacober (Mona), Eric Bogosian (The Narrator).
There has been a lot of talk recently about “likable” protagonists and characters – something that has never much interested me, and clearly doesn’t interest writer-director Alex Ross Perry. The opening scene of Listen Up Philip has his “hero”, Philip Lewis Friedman, played by Jason Schwartzman as the worst possible future version of his Max Fisher from Rushmore, waiting in a restaurant for an ex-girlfriend to give him a copy of his latest novel. When she has the nerve to show up 25 minutes late, he goes on a bile infused rant about what a horrible person she is, never lets her get a word in edgewise, and then stocks off into the streets of New York. Feeling good about his outburst, he then gets together with his old college friend, and similarly browbeats the man as a sellout – about how he has abandoned their declaration of principles, and how only he, Philip, is the real artist. When the old friend decides he has had enough, and leaves, the scenes pitch-black punchline comes, and delivers one of the first of many shocked laughs.
Philip lives in a world where everything is about himself and his work – which he knows is genius, even if no one else seems to quite agree with him. He informs his publisher that he will not be doing any press for his new book – hell, if shunning the press was good enough for Tolstoy, then it’s good enough for Philip Lewis Friedman. His novels draw the attention of Ike Zimmerman, an old author with a similar affliction of narcissism and misanthropy, clearly based on Philip Roth – and played brilliantly by Jonathan Pryce. He feeds Philip’s ego, and encourages him to live the lifestyle that Ike himself has so successfully lived – which if Philip was paying attention he would notice has left Ike a rich, but lonely man – with no friends that he has alienated, and a daughter, Melanie (the always welcome Krysten Ritter) who despises him – and longs to get the better of the man, who will not let her get the upper hand ever.
It’s not like Philip really needs Ike’s advice on how to be an asshole to those who love him, for some reason. Even before he meets Ike, Philip is doing his best to deliberately alienate his girlfriend of two years, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) – a photographer, who like Philip has had her career start to take off a little bit – and is stuck between artistic freedom, and perhaps selling out. From the opening scene with one ex-girlfriend, to a later scene with another ex (played by the wonderful Kate Lyn Sheil, who was the lead in Perry’s last film – The Color Wheel) – where she literally runs away from him in mid-conversation, we know where this relationship is likely headed. Strangely, for a film centered on a man, who leaves his girlfriend behind, the movie itself doesn’t leave Ashley. The movie has one, extended sequence where it follows Ashley after Philip has retreated to Ike’s upstate retreat to write, and eventually take a teaching position at small college (before he leaves, Philip tells Ashley “I hope this will be good for both of us. But especially me”). This sequence is unlike much of the rest of the film, where the dialogue flies quickly, and is actually relatively quiet – making the most of Moss’ ability (honed after years on Mad Men) to do so much with her face, which shows such complex emotions without utterly a word – or saying one thing, while meaning another. It’s also a rather welcome respite from all the masculine bile being spewed by Philip and Ike – which because the writing is so sharp, and the performances by Schwartzman and Pryce so good is both hilarious, and disturbing look at a certain type of male, narcissistic artist.