Listen Up Philip

It’s been speculated that writers hate clichés, and that’s true in spirit but is often incorrect in practice. Listen Up Philip documents one young writer’s journey, hurtling toward the self-fulfilling prophecy of loneliness and bitterness. The film’s lead is played by Jason Schwartzman, further sharpening the edges of his Angry Little Man routine into a monstrous character named Philip Lewis Friedman. The character of Philip could be a stand-in for a few different contemporary authors, but Listen Up Philip has little interest in slandering curmudgeons and more fun with seeing the role of the artist in the wild. Writers tend to be miserable people for a variety of reasons, the very nature of their craft causing them to keep those they should care about most at arm’s length. But the character of Philip, at least as played by Schwartzman, isn’t unhappy as a result of his literary success – he’s unhappy because he’s convinced himself that that is how literary successes are supposed to behave. The latest film from Alex Ross Perry is a handheld parade of egos so interested in romanticizing the asshole-ism involved in white, East Coast, male artistry that it’s attempts at charm seem distasteful at best and downright uninteresting at worst.

The film opens a few weeks before the release of Philip’s second novel, which is getting good early word and is cementing his reputation as a notable young author. First, we see Philip invite an ex-girlfriend named Mona (Samantha Jacober) to lunch just so he can rub his success in her face and berate her for not ‘having faith’ in him. Unsatisfied, Philip shortly after tracks down a former friend and fellow writer, Parker (Steven Boyer), and accosts him for never living up to his potential and giving Philip someone to share his success with. By the end of the scene, we’re shown that Parker is in a wheel chair. Philip lives in Brooklyn with his photographer girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), whose own success has been plentiful since before Philip had been published – having finally reached a similar plateau to Ashley in terms of economic status, Philip suddenly finds the relationship constricting. This feeling is further entrenched when he begins a friendship with Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a much-older writer of legendary success spanning several decades. Ike sees some of his own disagreeable-ness in Philip and misreads it for promise as a protegé. Ike suggests that Philip spend sometime in his country home upstate where he can focus on his writing and get away from the distractions of the city.

At a time when Listen Up Philip threatens to become the worst version of itself that it can possibly be, it makes an interesting shift. Philip ostensibly ends his relationship with Ashley before taking Ike up on his offer to spend time in his country house. Instead of following Philip, the film instead stays with Ashley and watches her as she attempts to maneuver through life after Philip has left her. Ashley goes through all the stages of Brooklyn break-up grief: she goes to a bar in desperate hook-up mode, she sells Philip’s belongings in a super cheap stoop sale, and she eventually gets a cat. Moss has one of the best faces of all contemporary actresses, and while she has gifts for delivery and presence, it’s her voiceless expressions that can leave you sidelined. These same expressions are also the only thing giving Perry’s propensity for shaky-cam close-ups any form of meaning. As we watch Listen Up Philip‘s Ashley-centric middle section, we get a view of a much more interesting film that could have been. Ashley’s arc from heartbroken despondency to cat-loving contentment is done with such wonderful efficiency and sense of place, no doubt supported by Moss’ spectacular embodiment of the successful career woman devastated to find out that she can still be brought to her knees by her infantile boyfriend.

Listen Up Philip meanders once again when it’s finished with Ashley’s segment, and becomes somewhat of a family melodrama where the irascible Ike battles with his disgruntled daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter). Ike is in a lot of ways a sort of Philip Roth-ian figure (which explains the deliberate font choices throughout the movie’s credits), his own personal life paying the price for what is considered to be a brilliant writing career. His relationship with Melanie is dysfunctional and likely irreparable, and that the equally loathsome Philip is palling around the house with Ike surely doesn’t make Melanie any happier. By the time the film comes full circle and shift its focus back onto Philip, his maddening attitude is further contextualized, he’s one of a school of people who’s unhappiness is of his own making. But Perry is rationalizing here, and expects us to find the drama between all these people fascinating. I left the film less than convinced. The film’s visual aesthetic (nearly all handheld, constant close-ups) could have worked if these people were exciting, but watching depressed people further dig their own grave of loneliness feels pointless to the point of boredom. Listen Up Philip does have a superb performance from Moss, and Schwartzman and Pryce do deliver a convincing portrayal of the monstrous mentor and his impressionable pupil – you get the sense that they gave the exact performances that Perry wanted from them. It’s the romantic way in which these characters are displayed which rubbed me the wrong way. We’ve honored many great artists despite them being assholes. Listen Up Philip wants us to honor them because they’re assholes.


Written and Directed by Alex Ross Perry