What’s to like about Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip”? The film’s New York author protagonist, played by Jason Schwartzman, is deplorable. Philip is a pretentious, narcissistic, literary blowhard who uses the world as a playground for novel-writing, trampling over women and snuffing out relationships that challenge his ego. If it weren’t for a mid-stretch bright spot that finds his ex Ashley (Elisabeth Moss, blonde and marvelous until she’s yanked away) drifting in post-breakup mode, the film would not be able to sustain itself for 109 uncomfortable minutes.
Yet there is something to love, or at least admire, about 30-year-old Alex Ross Perry’s principled nostalgia as a filmmaker, from the scuzzy 16mm beauty of faces in exquisite torment to the nervy editing and a generous literary structure that makes time for almost every character in the ensemble. “Listen Up Philip” has the blunt comedy and pathos of Perry’s sophomore breakout “The Color Wheel.” But Philip is even more wretched and awful than the way-too-close siblings of the latter film.
There’s something dubious about the way critics are falling to their knees for “Listen Up Philip.” Why? Because the film appeals to the chin-stroking, tweed-wearing, elbow-patched pedant in those whose fantasy vision of Manhattan is a sepia-toned salon of literary bloviators. And therefore it flatters the New York contingent (that David Fincher likes to call “callous sophisticates”) that cheered “The Color Wheel” in 2011. You wish Alvy Singer would burst through the frame: “Aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that?”
Does Alex Ross Perry identify with his main character, a man who finds (but can’t see) the grotesque, monstrous mirror image of himself, 20 or 30 years down the line, in his Rothian hero Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce)? Does Perry really admire this guy? The film dares us to endorse awful human behavior because Philip is so talented.
“Who cares? You have to let him be good. That’s the deal,” Perry tells me in our interview below. “I see [creative people] being forgiven, and I myself forgiven, because they’re really good at what they do.”
Unlike Philip who, like the cat that got the cream, refuses the press tour for his sophomore novel, Perry was willing to talk to me about his work.
Ryan Lattanzio: How was your hometown screening at the New York Film Festival?
Alex Ross Perry: It was incredible. it was like a wish fulfillment dream come true of the most absurd proportion.
Your lead is a horrible human being. Are you testing your audience’s patience?
To some extent yes because it’s fun to poke at an audience’s expectations; I don’t know if it’s testing. I would say something a bit more highfalutin like “subverting” or “tinkering with” their expectations just because that’s part of the fun that comes when people bring their own baggage to a film. Now that you’re making a movie with well-known faces, you have a little bit extra preconception of who your actors are that you can subvert because your audience is likely to identify with these people already. It’s interesting for me to try and play that game and to shuffle their expectations again and again throughout the film like a game of Three-card Monte where you’re moving the Ace of Spades around and people pick it up and it’s not there. And then you shuffle for a few more scenes. Exactly what you’re giving them keeps eluding them until you let it all reveal itself and come together.
Is Philip a fantasy version of yourself, or is this who you are?
Um. It’s definitely not who I am. There are ideas in there that are me saying, “Okay, I found myself in this situation” or “I’m finding myself being treated this way by other people” or “I’ve had X, Y, Z experience as a result of whatever modicum of success I myself have had.”
Every time I think, “What would be the wrong thing to do in this scenario?” that was always what Philip would be doing. I myself would like to think that I choose the right thing at least most of the time and as a result of putting these decisions into a fictional film I no longer am tempted to entertain the idea of actually doing them myself. Because I see now via making this film what would happen to somebody if they followed those bad impulses to the very bitter end.
That’s a healthy way of dealing with those impulses. How good of a writer is Philip? We don’t have a sense of the actual content of his creations. We only ever hear about his aspiration and his ambition and where he sees himself in the New York literary milieu.
Everybody in the film points out how good his work is. Ike finds his work remarkable; a guy like that certainly wouldn’t invite a young writer into his home if he didn’t think he was worth a damn. The bad version of this movie would really make a big point of letting people know what Philip is all about and what his work is like and show him reading his work to a college class, or at a book-signing, and would really give some insight.
What’s more interesting to me is just saying: “Hey, this guy is great. I don’t need to prove that he’s great because the movie says that he’s great.” So why wouldn’t we take this movie at face value when it says Philip is a great writer? How do we know that? One of his heroes wants to hang out with him. His work is remarkable.
To me and Jason, Philip was very talented, a young prodigy who’s written some game-changing book at the age of thirty-something and he is going to experience a whirlwind of changes in his life because of this work that show he is certainly one of the most talented young writers working. Whether or not the movie needs to do anything beyond say that, I chose to not.
Why should we care how talented Philip is if he’s so insufferable?
Well, because that’s what excuses that behavior in my experience. The creative people I’m in the periphery of who tend to be a bit more monstrous in their actions and treatment of others, I see them being forgiven, and I myself forgiven, because they’re really good at what they do.
This is a big question I had: Why does blinding charisma and talent get people so much credit that their own personal behavior is written off by both their friends and their enemies? For me, people in my world or the film world or people I’m around in New York or what-have-you, are unrepentant and cruel or what-have-you, but if they’re good, they’re good. And “good” buys you credit and you can use that credit to be a piece of shit and a lot of people who earn that credit do, and Philip couldn’t get away with this if he wasn’t good enough for people to excuse it.
But do you really think he’s getting away with being a prick?
If you’re actually talented and your work stands on its own, you can get away with anything, which blows my mind as someone who tries to do the right thing instead of what Philip does, which is the wrong thing. Obviously I’m not at the level of blazing talent where everything I do is forgiven. I’m very much held accountable. But some people aren’t and I wanted Philip to be a guy who produces work of such quality that people say he’s terrible, and he’s mean, and he has a short temper, and he’s really obnoxious, but he’s just good. Who cares? You have to let him be good. That’s the deal.
My favorite scene of the movie is this close-up of Ashley, after she dumps Philip for good, where she has this mixed expression of exasperation and relief and defeat and depression. That’s one of the great close-ups. Was that your doing, or was that all her?
This is a great scene to talk about when you talk about trusting the instincts of the incredible actors who have put faith in your small independent film, and letting those instincts guide. That shot you’re referring to was her final day on the film, if not her second to last day. We’d been together for about two weeks. At that point, by day two, I was trusting every instinct that both her and Jason had. I understand the entire fabric of the film, they’re only responsible for the reality of this character.
In the script, it said nothing more than this: Philip leaves and closes the door. Ashley’s face shows a wave of emotion, a whole spectrum washing over. That’s all it says. One sentence. We didn’t rehearse. To take two nondescript sentences, never having her ask a question, I was astonished by the decisions she made. If you wrote what that moment needed to be, people would say there’s too much information. Not every actor would take those two sentences and turn it into the most memorable moment in the film for many people.
While I enjoyed the movie with considerably sick pleasure, the Ashley sequence was such a real pleasure to watch and when you took her away, I wanted her back.
“Leave ’em wanting more” is a trite expression… But that means I’ve somehow created a character that the audience somehow actually likes. It’s interesting. Philip’s not a good guy and yet when he’s not around you see Ashley and Ike leading their lives at a different rhythm than when Philip was around. When Philip’s not around and we’re with Ashley, we should think “I wish Philip were around. He’s a lot of fun…”
But we don’t. “Listen Up Philip” opens in New York on October 17 before hitting LA on October 24.