I want to like this low-key indie a lot more than I actually do, but unfortunately it’s a struggle. Broadly-speaking it smartly mocks a persona that I tend to dislike (your stereotypical lofty, sarcastic, New York artistic intellectual) and director Alex Ross Perry’s script is consistently witty when doing so (in that drole way that makes you briefly snort your amusement, rather than emit an actual laugh). Additionally the performances by the ensemble cast serve to reinforce the overall quality of the piece: Jason Schwartzman is excellent as successful-but-obnoxious writer Philip Lewis Freedman, while Elisabeth Moss is just as good as his exasperated photographer partner Ashley Kane (confirming the previously-held hunch that she is one of the best actors working today and is worth watching in pretty much anything right now). They have strong support, including Jonathan Pryce as experienced writer Ike Zimmerman – who becomes a mentor to Philip for egotistical reasons, allayed to a dash of insecurity, despite initially appearing as if he wishes to simply help the younger man by imparting his wisdom – and Krysten Ritter as Ike’s daughter Melanie, who has grown tired of her father’s narcissism.
Unfortunately, because Schwartzman’s character is such a bastard, it’s difficult to care a jot about Philip’s situation here (in brief it’s the eve of the publication of his second novel and his relationship with Ashley is failing), and despite all the qualities mentioned above (and more) Listen Up Philip ends up feeling like a chore to sit through simply because its main character is so wantonly unpleasant (although, that said, the pair of pre-credits scenes in which he tells an ex-girlfriend and a friend exactly what he thinks of them are funny and establish the tone perfectly). Why would anyone seek to help or work with this man, who rudely cuts down anyone he ever comes across, from publishers and agents to students and friends? What on earth attracted Ashley to such a snob in the first place? Why does he have literary groupies? Has everyone lost their minds? Clearly some people humour Philip because they have to, or because being associated with an up-and-coming writer is either good for their own self-image or helpful in terms of their own careers. The novelist’s publisher and agent both believe he is about to enter the big leagues, so he is undoubtedly talented, despite being beset by self-doubt; as such the idea of such a jerk having fans is not beyond the realms of possibility. But really: way to many intelligent characters seem to accept his remarks without question or comeback, and though the film only covers a period of roughly six months to a year, I find it incredible that people don’t tell him to go and fuck himself sooner.
That said there is a pattern throughout the film of people eventually rejecting Philip, the reasons for which are fairly obvious. Ashley has enough of his selfish behaviour (and ends up way more happy when she substitutes boyfriend for cat) and there is a similar rebuttal from fellow academic Yvette (Joséphine de la Baume). And it’s worth noting that Perry manages to give plenty of attention to these characters; at one point the narrative drops Philip completely to focus on Ashley’s decision to move on in her life for a good five or ten minutes, while simultaneously exploring Ike’s relationship with his daughter. Yvette is brought into the story at a later stage, but the character seems important despite comparatively little screen time, and there’s a firm sense that Perry is as interested in these people as he is in Philip Lewis Freedman.
It’s shot on film, with jerky hand-held camera the preference, and the cinematography by Sean Price Williams creates a rich, 1970s-style warmth, which is complemented by the title and credit sequences. Although it marks the film with that slight aura of indie self-consciousness it’s hardly surprising that Perry would wish to hark back to this era, given that his Listen Up Philip is redolent of the wordy, character-driven works that filled that particular decade. Also worthy of mention is the narration, by Eric Bogosian, which guides us through the story by revealing the private thoughts of the characters. His voice is warm and sonorous, and fits perfectly with the prevailing aesthetic.
As a study of egotistical, fragile artistic temperaments it picks at the modern literary scene mercilessly, although the gradual on-screen crucifixion of Philip is a slow and laborious process, and it’s a shame to have seen so little of the character’s more positive personality traits (to the point where his apparent talent becomes something of a side issue). There are clear signs of talent in front of the camera and behind it, but sadly the story left me cold and I couldn’t wait for it to finish. So, in summary, there’s much here to recommend, particularly the acting, but despite it all I’m afraid I just didn’t like the film.
Directed by: Alex Ross Perry.
Written by: Alex Ross Perry.
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de la Baume. Narrated by Eric Bogosian.
Cinematography: Sean Price Williams.
Editing: Robert Greene.
Music: Keegan DeWitt.
Running Time: 109 minutes.