Conceived by a writer/director influenced by Philip Roth, Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip is a darkly comic satire of the American literary world.
The Human Stainby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s rare for a comedy, albeit one as dark as Listen Up Philip, to feature such an unpleasant and yet also articulate protagonist. Successful, self-obsessed young novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is an asshole, a jerk, boiling over with anger at everyone around him, not caring whether he alienates them. He’s outspoken, acerbic, insensitive, yet tolerated because of his talent. He’s rude to his publishers, arrogantly refusing to promote his second novel. He meets up with an ex-girlfriend to give her a copy and instead gives her a dressing down for being late. In a bar, he launches a tirade against his old university friend for not achieving his potential – who, as the shot widens, we see leaving dejectedly in a wheelchair.
Philip’s progress is illuminated by a dominating omniscient voiceover, delivering in ironic tones by Eric Bogosian, the actor and writer known for his comedic monologues. It’s delivered in formal, literary language that distances Philip almost as a character within the novel of his own life: “He had been living in the city [New York] for nine years and only now was beginning to think of it as home” and “Philip had begun to think the city was rejecting him” – that perhaps being the extent of his self-knowledge.
Philip’s closest emotional casualty is girlfriend Ashley (an intelligent characterisation by Elisabeth Moss). She’s quietly enjoying success as a photographer, but is unappreciated and taken for granted by him. Their life together changes when Philip is supremely flattered to be contacted by his idol, curmudgeonly, mocking famous novelist Ike Zimmerman (a venerable Jonathan Pryce, in a character openly based on novelist Philip Roth). Zimmerman invites his protégé to stay in his isolated summer retreat, where his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) is also staying and who resents the intrusion of the outsider. Philip accepts instantly, and without any warning or concern for his relationship with Ashley, immediately departs from the house they share. He sees nothing wrong in saying: “I hope this will be good for us, but most of all me.” “It’s horrible to be treated in a way that points out how meaningless you are,” she tells him. “I’d never thought of it like that,” he replies, with mere intellectual interest.
The film is shot in short, episodic scenes, the shaky hand-held camera concentrating on close-ups, enhancing the emphasis on spoken words and their effects – which are usually painful. The characters are very verbal and the dialogue is rapid and unceasing, particularly as delivered by Philip. Ashley, however, subtly portrayed by Moss, has depth and a humanity other characters lack. In a heartless film that otherwise has no likeable characters, Moss makes it bearable. The narrator sums her up: “Ashley had made the decision that Philip was no longer welcome, having come to the realisation that she would no longer invest in somebody who would routinely cause her to feel terrible.” And after Philip leaves for the country, the narrative shifts to Ashley for a middle section. We see her rebuilding her life independently of Philip – from the desperation of painting not just her nails but her whole hand, to an abortive pick-up in a bar and acquiring a cat that looks like a panda. But she’s not just sad, she’s strong, as we see later when Philip returns after the summer, insensitively assuming he can just pick up where he left off.
Zimmerman takes Philip under his wing – whilst his own powers as a writer are waning, he somehow seeks creative energy from him to unblock his writing. The two have their basic selfishness and unpleasantness in common – as well as the talent they recognise in each other. He finds Philip a post as a creative writing tutor at a nearby college. Of course, there he continues to be obnoxious and unpopular with both staff and students. Lonely and antagonised by feminist fellow tutor Yvette (Josephine de la Baume), he makes a point of seducing her simply, it seems, to prove he can, but then treats her callously. It’s as callous to his reaction to the suicide of another young writer he was supposed to have been profiling – until he alienated him and was dropped – “I’m glad he’s dead but doing that last interview would have been a great opportunity.”
The next section of the film again dispenses with Philip, as we get an insight into Zimmerman’s misanthropy and misogyny as he is forced by an old friend to socialise. They invite two women they have met at line-dancing back to Zimmerman’s house for what seems about to turn into a rather gruesome private party. So, after a long interval without Philip, it comes as a shock to realise that he is in fact still living there, when they call him down from his bedroom insisting he joins them. Again, the film shows that other lives have been going on independently of Philip, while Philip, we have to assume, has continued in his self-obsessed obnoxiousness that will never change – and maybe will never need to.
The mocked-up book jackets of the end credit sequences are a delight, so stay to the – increasingly – bitter end. Listen Up Philip is director, screenwriter and actor Alex Ross Perry’s third film after Impolex and The Color Wheel. His films are idiosyncratic and critically well received. After the harsh and painful satire of Listen Up Philip, his next is reported to be the psychodrama Queen of Earth. And in a move that is almost beyond satire, he has been signed up by Disney to write the new live action movie of Winnie the Pooh.
Listen Up Philip is released on 5th June 2015 in the UK