52nd New York Film Festival Review: ‘Listen Up Philip’

Written & Directed by Alex Ross Perry
Starring Jason Schwartzman, Elizabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter & Eric Bogosian

Director Alex Ross Perry hardly gives you any time to like his movie’s main character. Phillip Lewis Friedman walks down a New York City sidewalk and the shaky camera capturing his flustered steps is at once trying to stay ahead of him and expressing his agitation. A deep-voiced narrator (Eric Bogosian) almost immediately gives us some context. Phillip has just completed his second novel, which means his easily punctured, easily ballooned ego is about to rear its tempestuous head. He chews out an old girlfriend who didn’t like his work. He spits at an old friend who gave up creative writing after college. This is how he celebrates his accomplishment.

That’s how the sharp, chatty, melancholic ‘Listen Up Phillip’ begins, but Jason Schwartzman as this titular paranoid makes his negative energy nearly charming. It’s a virtually perfect role for him, wearing a shaggy beard in a Brooklyn brownstone with his girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss). The character isn’t far from an adult Max Fischer, the precocious academic in Rushmore. In fact, Perry, in his third feature, has a similar style to Wes Anderson, hovering over book covers, engaging omniscient voice-over, exploring creatively twisted protagonists. Even some subtitles have Anderson curlicues.

listen-to-phillip-click-to-expandThe font he implements also resembles the kind that real author Philip Roth used to cover his novels. This is not a direct reinterpretation of his life, but Phillip’s trajectory doesn’t skew too far from it. His publishing firm wants a press tour for his novel, even though the New York Times plans to review it negatively. Phillip refuses. He wants his work to speak for itself, a cocky disposition that he eventually compromises. At a later photo shoot he insults his photographer, declining suggested poses with a book in his hands. He speaks like he’s Hemingway to people who seem to have never heard of Hemingway.

His arrogance receives a boost when Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), once a profound novelist in the 1970s, tells Phillip he loves his latest work. A mentoring relationship emerges. Ike offers his upstate country home for the summer as a writing recluse for Phillip, who constantly complains he gets no work done riding his bike in New York’s cramped conditions. “The city has a creative energy, but not a productive energy,” he says, one of his alibis to leave Ashley and a relationship that has gotten progressively bitter. He’s really just another struggling writer who’s become a jerk.

There is no real narrative past this point, only variations on a theme. Perry isn’t out of ideas though. Like Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, this movie examines the acquisition of success and what to do with it. Ashley is a photographer, happy to play second fiddle to her boyfriend’s early achievements. But when she starts gaining success, Phillip downplays her craft, his insecurity and personal frustration clouding any rational or positive reinforcement. It’s easy to see why they’re not on good terms. When his sabbatical extends from one month to indefinite, she cleans him from the apartment and starts over with a cat.

Perry, who also wrote the script, turns this into a sprawling character study, temporarily pausing Phillip’s ventures in Ike’s cabin. It gives the movie much-needed warmth to find some juxtaposition. Moss gets some invaluable screen time exploring singlehood again while we see flashbacks of her initial attraction to Phillip. She’s not far from Peggy Olsen, her character on “Mad Men,” this time with blonde hair, reassuring her own talent yet still craving approval from another man. Her man. That is the frustration of dating someone “selfish and sentimental.” The two qualities rarely coexist.

Ike also gets his own backstory, nourishing the plot’s jagged comedic edges. His revitalizing tutelage quickly wears off and the hardened sage reignites his competitive juices. Phillip and Ike, it turns out, are very much alike. Instead of a girlfriend, Ike’s broken relationship is with his daughter (Krysten Ritter), who spends her days at her father’s cabin to distract her from his womanizing and worsening acerbic tongue. These are shallow people that have deep discussions over alcohol in front of a fireplace.

Schwartzman, playing a shade more conceited than his similar role on HBO’s “Bored to Death,” is one of the few actors that can pull this person off. As he drifts aimlessly, he becomes an adjunct professor at a local liberal arts college to teach creative writing. His sarcasm and quick wit are funny until they’re swallowed up by sadness. He appears to be a horrible teacher but his students seem inspired. He appears to treat a colleague rudely but she’s romantically inclined. Ike’s isolated home functions as a purgatory rather than a haven. So Phillip keeps returning to his Brooklyn apartment and girlfriend he’s abandoned and expects everything to stay the same.

These scenes are stuck in close-up and it’s fascinating if only to see how Perry navigates this claustrophobic, toxic space. Eventually Phillip returns to the city still drenched in solipsism. He walks the busy sidewalks and after nearly two hours we’ve returned to the movie’s beginning. It is the tragedy behind this nominal comedy. Between his verbose friends and lengthy, sophisticated conversations, Phillip might as well have been wearing earplugs the whole time.

– Jake Kring-Schreifels

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