Even the simplest melody can sound marvelous when played by a virtuoso, and in cinema, it’s amazing what well-trained, naturally gifted professional actors can do to with even basic material. Just look at the gigantic gulf between early Joe Swanberg movies featuring unrehearsed amateurs and his more recent, creatively successful films starring professionals: there’s a world of difference. Similarly, Alex Ross Perry’s terrific third feature, “Listen Up Philip,” is a quantum leap forward from his last feature, the micro-indie “The Color Wheel,” and it’s thanks in large part to great actors making the excellent script really sing.
Because aside from the terrific, attention-getting performances, it is a remarkable piece of work from this distinctive writer/director. A hilariously acidic look at the New York literary world and the complex and fragile egos within, “Listen Up Philip,” is a marvelously contoured picture and Perry’s most successful film to date by a wide margin. Jason Schwartzman in his best role since “Rushmore,” plays Philip, a bitter, narcissistic, up-and-coming novelist who is still consumed with anger despite his success. Normally internalizing his rage and saving it for his novels–as the affected literary narrator voiced by Eric Bogosnian informs the audience–on the rare occasion of meeting up with a pretty ex-girlfriend, Philip vomits up a backlogged torrent of abuse, recounting all the ways his ex-paramour was never supportive of his work. Emboldened by the feelings awakened from this change of heart, Philip even reconnects with an old friend from college to condemn him for not pursuing and securing his dreams of creative writing success (uproariously, this friend tells him to eat it and then shuffles on in his wheelchair).
Ostensibly proud of him for his excoriations, Philip’s photographer girlfriend Ashley (a wonderfully nuanced Elisabeth Moss), is really just trying to mask the fact that their relationship is slowly deteriorating. And then, on the verge of the release of his second novel, “Obidant,” and convinced of its impending success, Philip is crushed by the news that the New York Times is going to give the book a negative review, and then heartened to hear that his literary idol, the Gore Vidal-like famed novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce in what might be a career-best performance), loves the book and wants to meet him. Enamored of everything the elder statesman has to say, Philip soon accepts the generous offer to stay at Zimmerman’s upstate summer house so he can peacefully write, outside the noise of New York City (amusingly, Philip had no such issues before, but parroting his mentor, the young writer is soon incapable of spending time creatively in Manhattan).
While upstate, Philip’s strained relationship with Ashley falls apart further, as he starts to embrace the monstrously selfish qualities within himself that Ike is keen on encouraging and in general transforms into an even bigger asshole than the enormously self-absorbed one we first meet. Both a censure of and salute to the literary world, its neurotic creative types and the tiny/gigantic egos that need constant nourishment, “Listen Up Philip” is remarkably well-observed and rich. And the skewering of these appalling characters is often riotously funny.
Willfully difficult, arrogant, indifferent to promoting his novel and as self-centeredly assholish as possible, Philip is a piece of work, but also incredibly specific and well-drawn. This may be the most likable prick we’ve seen on screen since Steve Zissou in “The Life Aquatic.” Hewing close to a modern New York classic a la “Frances Ha,” the acerbic, witty, erudite echoes of Noah Baumbach and his belligerent characters are discernible. But Perry borrows from several influences to make something unique and idiosyncratic, so he’s also a pricklier Woody Allen, a less fastidious Wes Anderson, and so on. In fact, one could facetiously call it “Philip Roth: The Movie” for all the similarities it bears his characters in its supercilious Jewish New York author incapable of meaningful connection with women; Roth’s “Ghost Writer” even features a similar plot construct. Cassevetian in form, especially from his ‘70s period (though Perry also loves the close-ups of “Faces”), “Listen Up Philip” often features an aggressively roving camera not afraid of intruding into the face and never too concerned with focus. And shot on Super 16mm by Sean Price Williams (“Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo”), it looks great (unlike some other Super 16 Sundance films we won’t name) its grainy, instagrammy filters give it a timeless quality, even though it takes place in present day (you won’t see one cell phone though).
On top of how tremendously textured the writing and performances are, “Listen Up Philip” boasts an ambitious triptych structure shifting focus from Philip to Ashley and then to Ike (rounding back to Philip once again). And wisely the tone makes adjustments where necessary (Ashley’s section is far less neurotic, but lonelier as Philip’s absence is deeply felt). At two hours length, Perry’s sprawling film (long for a comedy) does lose a little steam in its third act, but the tortured despair of the protagonist has to be fulfilled and it’s hardly a major blight on what is so effervescently creative till then. Featuring clever rapid-fire dialogue, ‘Philip’ has a wonderful vitality and scored by Keegan DeWitt (“This Is Martin Bonner,” “ColdWeather“), it has a contrastingly languid, Miles Davis-esque jazz score that is further reminiscent of Woody Allen and sustains the idea of this refined and cultured milieu.
Co-starring Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de La Baume, Dree Hemingway, Jess Weixler and Kate Lyn Sheil, ‘Philip’ has a first-rate, up-and-coming indie supporting cast, but the troika of Schwartzman, Moss and Pryce, all at the top of their game, and their layered inter-dynamics are more than enough to suffice. Trenchantly reflecting on the mishandling of success, blind ambition, idolatry, hero worship and the complex and competitive nature of artists in romantic relationships, “Listen Up Philip” is brilliantly chock-a-block with resonant observations. And while Philip himself is unconditionally unpleasant, Schwartzman imbues his obnoxiousness with an undeniable charm that cuts the tart personality.
A deeply misanthropic portrait of narcissism, the brittle nature of artistic talent and the struggles of living in New York City, this toxic comedy pulls very few punches when it needs to get really nasty. Philip’s unpleasant self-regard is such that he poisons every relationship with his insecurity, contempt for others and need to always circle every conversation back to his favorite topic: himself. ‘Philip’ also cuts deeply on the idea of being so selfishly obsessed with women that a healthy relationship with any single member of the opposite sex seems like an impossibility. To reuse the Baumbach parallel, if “The Color Wheel” was Alex Ross Perry’s “Kicking And Screaming,” then “Listen Up Phillip” fast-forwards straight to “The Squid & The Whale”; we don’t have to wait a picture or two for the one where Perry has truly found his voice and fulfilled the promise of his enormous potential. He’s already made it. [A-]