“Hopefully by the end of this you’ll feel like you’ve just read a novel,” director Alex Ross Perry said before the premiere of his film, “Listen Up Philip.” Employing voice-over narration and an episodic structure that recalls the chapters of a book, Perry’s third directorial effort marries the best of showing and telling. Its titular character is a cantankerous novelist played by a hirsute and well-styled Jason Schwartzman. Petty, self-obsessed, and fixated on a very recognizable form of success, Philip’s increasing solipsism is defined by his relationships with those around him. Importantly, the protagonist disappears for a sizeable chunk of the film’s mid section (a device Perry borrowed from William Gaddis’ novel, “Recognitions”) and we learn as much about him in absentia as we do from being in his overwhelming presence. A languorous yet methodical comedy, “Listen Up Phillip” unfolds like a sociological proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity.
We first meet Philip en route to meet an ex-girlfriend for lunch in Manhattan. She’s late, and the interior perspective afforded to us by the deep voiced narrator (Eric Bogosian) explains the extent to which Philip takes her tardiness as a personal insult. By the time she sits down, he’s worked himself into a fury. Ego bruised, he gives into spite and decides not to give her the advanced copy of his new book that he’s already inscribed for her. “So, you don’t get this gift from me,” he tells her. The line is delivered with the spirit and intonation of “Rushmore’s” Max Fischer and indeed, Philip is exactly the kind of man Max might have grown up to become.
Philip’s growing distance from his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) stems from the fact that her career as a commercial photographer is much more fruitful than his own, which he views as a detraction from his sense of self-worth. Finding more validation in a newfound friendship with his literary hero, Ike (played by a note perfect Jonathan Pryce), Philip leaps at the invitation for a one-week writing getaway at Ike’s idyllic country house. A week turns into an entire summer and when summer bleeds into a fall teaching job upstate, Philip doesn’t discuss his decision to leave New York with Ashley so much as her informs her of it, packing his vintage suitcase and heading for the well-lettered hills.
Rather than dropping out on Ashley to immediately follow Philip, Perry wisely stays with her for a chapter, and as she revisits her memory of him the audience becomes privy to the qualities that attracted Ashley to such an unlikable man in the first place. It’s a crucial move which, coupled with Schwartzman’s charm in the role, saves his character from being totally alienating. For her part, Elisabeth Moss delivers a performance that is as subtly emotive as it is stoic, gradually revealing the extent to which Ashley and Philip’s differences perhaps stem from their similarities.
Philip is the kind of man who writes his life rather than living it. Playing the part of both the successful author and a character in one of his own books, he speaks in pre-scripted lines of dialogue and dresses in tweed even in the height of the summer heat. “Ever since high school I wanted to fall in love with a French girl,” he tells Ike one day, so when the opportunity for romance with a young French faculty member arises Philip pursues the idea of the relationship rather than the relationship itself.
An expert at self-curation, he similarly clings to a romanticized version of Ike that blinds him to the older man’s glaring faults. Ike is just as selfish as Philip, feeding off his sycophantic company more than anything else. The cynical spin on the traditional mentor-mentee relationship is played out to comedic avail and it’s only Ike’s daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter) who is able to shed real light on her father’s character, revealing the hurt beneath what Philip sees as the glamor of Ike’s literary success—namely the womanizing and egotism that destroyed her mother and left her neglected.
By creating a world with contemporary concerns and antiquated aesthetics (right down to the title font, which is a direct nod to the book covers of Philip Roth), Perry is complicit in the actualization of Philip’s idealized existence. It’s a world from which modern gadgetry has been wiped out: rotary phones replace cellulars and typewriters stand in for computers. Enhanced by Keegan DeWitt’s atmospheric jazz score, the film is steeped in a sense of nostalgia for the kind of literary life that no longer exists—and perhaps never really did—one of single malt scotch, doting female fans, and exclusively brown clothing.
Cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ handheld camera does justice to both the characters and the stylized interiors they inhabit, whether swirling gracefully around rooms or staying tight on faces. Although the film drags a bit in its second half, it nevertheless manages to articulate ephemeral notions of success, perception, and longing. Resembling the work of Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen circa “Husbands and Wives” in style and tone, the script’s deadpan wit makes its appeal more cerebral than emotional. Like its central character, “Listen Up Philip” exudes a kind of highbrow affectation that charms more than it alienates.
A version of this review ran during the Sundance Film Festival. “Listen Up Philip” opens in New York this week followed by a national expansion on October 24 and a VOD/iTunes release on October 21.