Oct 17, 2014
Listen Up Philip
A brazen dark comedy that does everything they tell you not to do in screenwriting school, Listen Up Philip, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, is the story of Philip Lewis Friedman, an ambitious young writer, (Jason Schwartzman, in his best movie role yet), who is an unrepentant asshole. He is solely concerned with himself, he is cruel to his friends, horrible to his lovers, and refuses to do publicity for his book, which is like being Satan in the publishing industry. Movie heroes are supposed to be likable, or as they say, relatable. Philip is not only flawed; he is a horror. Schwartzman finds the right amount of deadpan, contemptuous self-regard, and somehow makes him funny.
Like in a book, the movie is narrated with big, polysyllabic words by an omniscient narrator with a soothing, sexy voice that belongs to the wonderful Eric Bogosian. This is a literary movie about the petty, insular literary world, breaking unspoken rule number two: "thou shalt not make movies about writers".
Philip is anxious about the publication and success of his book, about writing a new one and about the indignities of people's demands on him. All they ask from him is respect, attention and some modicum of humility, none of which he is capable of summoning. He's the kind of guy who reads about someone else's tragedy and takes it as something that deflects attention from him. His ego is inconsolable.
He is a ladies' man (girls do fall for forbidding, enigmatic literary types), but he lives with his lovely, inexplicable girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss, fantastic, as always), a successful photographer. She endures his monstrous selfishness with decreasing good humor. She is as full of feeling as he is full of himself, and thus plays not only his girlfriend but his foil. She ventures out into the world, while he remains trapped in his own calculated aloofness.
As he only cares about his own fate, Philip endears himself to Ike Zimmerman, an older, very successful writer, played as the living portrait of needy egocentrism masquerading as wisdom by the great Jonathan Pryce. The cleverest thing in the movie is a montage of the book covers of Ike's successful novels. They are spoofs of Philip Roth novels, seventies' book jacket design and chunky typeface included.
That Philip is virtually this man's younger version is apparent to everyone but Philip. There is something poignant about having the future version of you in front of you, so you can take notes on who and who not to become, but Philip doesn't seem to learn much from his mentor. It's not clear whether Philip sees himself as a future Ike, whether he wants or not to be like him, or learns from how sad it is to grow old with success, yet not ever shaking off an almost crippling insecurity, which translates as arrogance, contempt and mistrust for everyone.
Philip strikes a friendship with Ike, which means he must endure Ike's mastery at undermining. Pryce also manages not to make his character totally odious. He has a daughter, the wonderful Krysten Ritter, whom he treats badly. There could be a semblance of a hate-love flirtation between her and Philip but Ross Perry does not pursue that.
I wish the camera work was not as shaky (cinematographer du jour Sean Price Williams, jerking it all over the place), the sound was better, and the jazz sax score less intrusive. But it's the actors who do justice to the bitter tone of the film.
During the second act, Philip virtually disappears from the screen and we follow Ashley's life without him. It's hard to understand what she saw in him, but Moss is alive with possibility. In the end, Philip remains unredeemable, which breaks the next rule of screenwriting. The flawed hero must change, or find redemption, or learn something. It doesn't happen. So how come this movie is not depressing and hateful? Ashley's determined moxie makes up for it. She's a hero for putting up with Philip, and even more for sticking to her guns and her dignity.
This is a comedy, so there is a happy ending of sorts; a bittersweet, rather abrupt ending. This contrarian, off-kilter film is a good companion piece to Birdman, which also deals with creative egotists, with more budget and much less bile.