Philip Lewis Friedman’s second novel is about to be released and he’s all ready to gloat. Beginning with a meeting between him and an ex-girlfriend who he believes wasn’t encouraging enough, Listen Up Philip sees Jason Schwartzman’s author character rage from moment to moment, consumed by self-interest but impeded by a desire to be around people who revere him in some way. After receiving news that the New York Times is preparing to give his upcoming book a negative review, Philip decides to cancel all his scheduled press appearances despite the objections of his publisher. He says he wants to be an author whose work speaks for itself, but really, it’s more self-aggrandizing stunt work to satiate his own ego.
This ego is further fed by a new fan of his work, famous author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Ike is excited to spend time around a younger colleague, not only an admirer he can advise, but also someone whose youthful energy is invigorating to the older author. Ike lectures Philip on the difficulties of getting real writing done within the noisy confines of New York City, and encourages the younger author to spend time in his home upstate. This idea appeals to Philip, who is eager to add descriptors to his mystique. So, he makes plans to leave the city indefinitely.
These plans are a surprising twist in the plans of Philip’s current girlfriend, a successful photographer named Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss). The two had been dating for two years, and although the relationship was already beginning to sour, his lack of consideration for Ashley’s feelings serves as the final nail in the coffin. This is all the more irksome to Ashley considering all the support she gave him through his unsuccessful period, and her inability to quickly get over what was only occasionally a good relationship.
All of these events and more are narrated by Eric Bogosian’s dry delivery with the subtle wit displayed in Alex Ross Perry’s script. Listen Up Philip is the third feature film from Perry, whose previous micro-budget comedy The Color Wheel made a splash in the indie community. Here, he shoots his new film in grainy 16 mm with frenetic, handheld movements that linger close-up on his characters. The technique can be dizzying, and while it obscures the focus of a few scenes, it definitely adds to the chaotic nature of Listen Up Philip’s more tense moments.
Perry’s script often deals with narcissistic characters during uncomfortably honest confrontations between lovers, family or friends. The combination of these elements gives the movie a raw quality, despite how broadly some of its characters are drawn. Allowing them to expose their inner needs, even if they’re only saying what they think they need, provides intriguing insights on the mindset of someone who’s irritatingly self-absorbed.
The three aforementioned characters are each the center of individual sections of the film, and as if handing off a baton, the movie gracefully drifts from emphasizing one character’s story to emphasizing another’s. While Schartzman’s titular character bookends the film, he only makes appearances in Ashley and Ike’s stories while those characters spend time away from him. In Ashley’s segment, she adopts a cat and travels to visit her sister (Jess Weixler) in Philadelphia for a quiet weekend by the Schuylkill River. For Ike’s subplot, he goes on a double date and deals with tension between him and his live-in daughter (a wonderfully blunt Krysten Ritter). These parts of the story are dramatically compelling but aren’t quite as funny as the rest of the film, and ultimately slow the otherwise quick pacing in Listen Up Philip.
It’s the sections following Jason Schwartzman’s Philip that are laugh out loud hilarious. The actors has always had a knack for playing the self-deluded creative, starting with his emergence as Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s classic Rushmore. It’s more rare to see Schwartzman with such a mean edge, and the nonchalant delivery behind his putdowns is consistently entertaining. In Philip Friedman’s whiny qualms with the world, as well as his disappointment at the lack of respect afforded him by his loved ones, Schwartzman and Perry are articulating an amusing disconnect between artistic and social sensibilities.
Perry’s latest contains within it astute observations packaged in an exciting comedy. Its characters are often frustrating, but become endearing through the disarming situations that Listen Up Philip puts them through. With several great performances in smaller roles, even the supporting characters feel specific and identifiable, helping to create a fuller world of people for Philip Friedman to rub the wrong way. Though not perfect, Listen Up Philip is a thoughtful, thought-provoking comedy, with shades of a cynical Wes Anderson, and an active disdain for pretension.
Though far from perfect, Alex Ross Perry’s new comedy, Listen Up Philip, has a distinct visual style and a biting commentary on the narcissistic mindset of creative people, making it a very enjoyable watch.