At the opening-night party for Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, a longtime friend of Perry’s described him as “a horrible human being.” One can only imagine what his enemies call him. But then that’s the reputation Perry’s built, and even encouraged, with his previous films, Impolex and The Color Wheel.
Listen Up Philip, Perry’s third film, is, among other things, an endurance test, almost a dare: Bet you can’t spend two hours in the company of Jason Schwartzman’s loathsome, self-loathing novelist. In a sense, Philip is a deliberate throwback to the era of caustic, heroically alienating writers like Philip Roth, represented here by Jonathan Pryce’s Ike Zimmerman, who established himself in his early 30s with a landmark novel called Madness & Women. (A quick montage of book covers, brilliantly designed by Teddy Banks, traces Zimmerman’s career through the ages, culminating with the chrome script of his 1980s bestseller, Audit.) But as Eric Bogosian’s narrator makes clear, the prickly isolation that once fed Zimmerman’s mystique has left him a bitter and lonely old man, a fate Philip seems likely, even determined, to repeat.
Philip lives with his long-term girlfriend, Ashley, played by Elisabeth Moss in what may be the performance of her career to date, Peggy Olson notwithstanding. (There’s a long single shot in which she goes through half a dozen fluid but perfectly delineated emotions; it’s like watching one of Mad Men‘s virtuosic conference-table scenes reconfigured as a one-woman show.) But though Ashley has slowed her career as a commercial photographer to support the writing of Philip’s second novel, he shows her no gratitude; he might even hate her for it. He takes a teaching job upstate without informing her until after the fact, then shows up months later in their — or, as she insists at that point, her — apartment without warning. He’s not a loner so much as he is a man who takes pride in his most narcissistic and self-destructive urges; after bragging to Ashley that the tour for his upcoming second novel will take him away from home for months, he tells his publisher to cancel all his public appearances. As the Sarasota Film Festival’s Tom Hall succinctly put it, Listen Up Philip is about “misanthropy as a form of longing.”
But as Philip reaches the heights of its protagonist’s misanthropy, Perry does something quite unexpected: He cuts away, for quite a while, to Ashley, a trick he repeats later with other characters, a structure supported by the film’s novelistic framing. Even when we’re riding shotgun with Philip, we’re not encouraged to see the world the way he does, or even, necessarily, to empathize with him. There’s a line late in the film that could serve as an explanation for Philip’s aversion to emotional intimacy, but it’s deployed in such a self-serving and aggressive manner that there’s no risk of us feeling sorry for him. At the same time, Perry doesn’t want us to get too far away from Philip. We watch him from a distance, but it’s a short one.
Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices, which also premiered at Sundance this week, doesn’t give us that much breathing room. Satrapi’s fourth feature (counting 2012’s little-seen The Gang of the Jotas) is the first she didn’t write herself, and it’s a pronounced, even violent departure from the animated autobiography of Persepolis and the lyrical fabulism of Chicken With Plums. Like a Masters of Horror version of Mike Judge’s Extract, the film stars Ryan Reynolds as Jerry, a clean-cut, perpetually upbeat factory worker who suffers from some serious mental-health issues. Jerry, you see, hears voices, two in particular: the droopy, easygoing bass of his dog, Bosco, and the foul-mouthed Scottish burr of his cat, Mr. Whiskers. (Fittingly, Reynolds did the voiceover for both.) Bosco tells Jerry to be a “good dog,” treating people nicely and doing what’s expected of him — although he stops short of encouraging Jerry to take the court-ordered medication that would shut the voices out. But Mr. Whiskers’ is a less domesticated, more feral voice. Mr. Whiskers wants Jerry to kill.
Satrapi’s skill as a live-action director has skyrocketed since the clunky Chicken With Plums; she’s confident and precise in her black comic tone, steering Reynolds through a deft blend of guileless cheer and psychosis. But though she gives us fleeting glimpses of Jerry’s bloodstained apartment, including the kitchen counter where he hacks his first victim into Tupperware-sized chunks, she doesn’t give us a perspective other than Jerry’s to adopt, nor does she commit so fully to his deranged worldview as to force the audience to question what they see. Although we’re not given any reason to think that Jerry’s victims deserve their fate, there’s not much cause to think they’ll missed, and the movie’s juvenile closing-credits sequence makes an overt mockery of any sympathy we might fleetingly have felt.
For a while, The Voices is a deftly executed, bloody-minded satire, but as the movie moves on in the same vein, it becomes clear Satrapi doesn’t know what, if anything, she’s satirizing. The movie’s closest analogue might be John Waters’ Serial Mom, but Waters’ attack on social strictures has more teeth than The Voices‘ glib misanthropy, and Kathleen Turner’s protagonist has more layers, and more comic zest, than Reynolds’ knife-wielding choirboy. On its gleaming surface, The Voices is a more appealing movie than Listen Up Philip, but it’s not a fraction as honest, or as moral. Its slick antihumanism goes down smooth, and comes out the other end just as fast.