Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is many other things: a remarkably confident young man, a talented writer — something that isn’t shown but is asserted without feeling desperate or false — and a person who has trouble being forthright and emotionally intimate with others. Above all else, though, he’s an egotistical prick and a misanthrope, someone who spends the first ten minutes of the movie berating an ex-girlfriend for being late to a meeting and an ex-friend for being a failed writer who didn’t want it enough (that friend, by the way, is in a wheelchair), and he only gets worse as the film goes on. He’s not the only jerk in the film, either: his mentor, Philip Roth-like author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), is just as caustic and self-important as his protege, treating his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) with just as much casual cruelty as Philip does to his long-suffering girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss).
Perry isn’t the first writer-director to deal with erudite New York neurotics, egotists and misanthropes: he’s earned comparisons in reviews to Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson and Woody Allen, among others. At times, Perry courts those comparisons, especially to Anderson: Schwartzman plays Philip like a version of “Rushmore’s” Max Fischer who never gained perspective, while the film employs the same use of fake book covers and an omniscient, literary narrator (Eric Bogosian instead of Alec Baldwin) as “The Royal Tenenbaums.” The key difference is that while Perry has the same interest and compassion towards his most miserable characters, he never allows them the enlightenment or slight self-realization that his predecessors give theirs.
Woody Allen characters are commonly self-centered or controlling to the point of pathology, but even when they wind up alone (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan”), the Woodman gives them a beautifully-written “eureka!” speech that at least lets them realize that they’ve screwed up. Anderson allows the same for narcissists as varied as Max Fischer, Steve Zissou and Royal Tenenbaum, whose “Can’t somebody be a shit their whole life and try to repair the damage?” could serve as a mission statement. Even Baumbach, the most caustic of the three, ends “The Squid and the Whale” with Jesse Eisenberg’s Walt Berkman realizing that his father’s toxic worldview isn’t something worth aspiring to, while “Greenberg” gives some hope that Ben Stiller’s titular curmudgeon might stop being such a jerk.
Perry’s film has no “Eureka!” moment, no redemption for Philip or Ike, not even a bit of self-realization where either of them recognize that they’re responsible for their ultimate loneliness. If anything, their rejection only further drives them into their own self-importance and bitterness. Ike’s reinforcement of Philip’s worst habits doesn’t help any — in a way, “Listen Up Philip” is as perverse a mentor-student film as “Whiplash,” where the teacher only gives his pupil advice that will make him a worse person. The film recognizes how they’ve cut themselves off, but it also takes no small amount of cringe-comedy glee in just how terribly they treat others (see: Philip telling one of his creative writing students that he can’t write her a letter of recommendation, but he can give her a piece of paper with some staples in it).
That last bit might have some wondering whether or not Perry identifies with Philip. In an interview with Ryan Lattanzio of Thompson on Hollywood, Perry notes that Philip can get away with what he does because he’s really good at what he does, and he includes himself on a list of people who can manage that (though not to the degree that Philip does):
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…. 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.
I’m glad you said characters, because my girlfriend pointed out, like, “Everyone is going to say how much of you is in Philip, but no one’s going to know that Ike is you. Jason talks more like you, but the way Ike acts and his complete disinterest in people and his gleeful willingness to just be alone, that is so troublingly you.” So in that sense, I’m a 70-year-old man with a lifetime of enemies and accomplishments, except I’m 29 and I don’t have any of those accomplishments. I’m just a miserable person who wants to be left alone and just to sit in a quiet house somewhere and do work and detach myself from all these people who just make me unhappy.
What separates Perry from his characters, then, is a certain amount of self-awareness, present in both his films and his interviews. Perry recognizes his own weaknesses and habits, something that Philip and Ike either don’t see or ignore. Perry also recognizes just how painful Philip and Ike’s treatment of others is (significantly, he devotes an entire third of the movie to Moss getting over her breakup with Schwartzman), as well as how difficult it is for highly accomplished, arrogant men to come to terms with the fact that they’re assholes.
That’s not to denigrate the films of Allen, Anderson and Baumbach, whose characters’ journeys are still as cathartic as ever. But the freshness of Perry’s perspective is the truth that for everyone who reaches a “stop being an asshole” epiphany, there’s a dozen or so who take ostensible life lessons and take it as reason to isolate themselves emotionally. The title “Listen Up Philip” isn’t just a beautifully ironic one, but a plea to both Philip and those like him, one that’s not likely to be heard by many of them.