It’s a good thing that you aren’t required to like or root for a main character in order to enjoy a movie. If that were the case the film “Listen Up Philip” wouldn’t have a fan in the world. This is the third movie from 30-year old independent filmmaker Alex Ross Perry and it can be a challenge. It is relentlessly unpleasant and it may feature the most detestable lead character you’ll see this year. Yet at the same time the dialogue is razor sharp, it is at times darkly funny, and it features a wickedly good lead performance from Jason Schwartzman.
The opening scene reveals to us the type of man we will be spending our time with. Philip (Schwartzman) sits in a restaurant impatiently waiting for his ex-girlfriend. She is 20 minutes late and he has already rehearsed how he’s going to belittle and confront her, not just for being late, but for never supporting him during their time together in ways he finds satisfactory. Philip is a writer who has just completed his second novel. His taste of success has fed his insatiable narcissism and he can’t wait to rub it in his ex’s face.
Philip’s haughty self-absorption isn’t just reserved for his ex-girlfriend. We see it with a stranger at a bar, with his publisher, and we mostly see it with his current girlfriend Ashley who is played wonderfully by Elizabeth Moss. Ashley is one of our few refuges. She is a likable character who loves Philip and seems to have found a way to navigate his crazy range of emotions. But relationships can only sustain so much when a toxic character like Philip is factored in.
Now throw in an accomplished but aged writer Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). He is Philip’s literary idol and a man desperate for new inspiration. Having appreciated Philip’s first two books, Ike contacts him with an invitation to stay at his country cottage and write. Philip jumps at the chance, leaving Ashley behind and fully expecting her to wait for him. We quickly learn that Ike isn’t the blueprint Philip follows in writing only. Ike’s also shares the same miserable self-centered lifestyle. The question becomes will Philip learn from Ike’s pathetic example or emulate it?
“Listen Up Philip” can be seen as many things. For one it’s a gut punch to many of the creative elites. It shows the striking differences between the happiness they bring through their creativity and the self-inflicted misery many of them live in. The film shows the fantasy world many elites live in built upon self-importance and the idea of being better than anyone else. These acidic personalities also bleed over into relationships. We see it with Philip and Ashley and later when he meets a French professor played by Joséphine de La Baume. For Ike it’s evident by his strained relationship with his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter).
As I mentioned, the real challenge is in staying with these characters. I can easily see some people struggling with the film as they wait and search for at least an ounce of humanity in Philip. It seems as if Perry anticipates this problem. At one point in the film Philip vanishes for nearly 20 minutes and we follow Ashley and her struggles with Philip being gone. I’m still struggling with how I feel about the narrative shift. I like the Ashley character and there are some good moments in our time with her, but I’m not sure the divergence fully works. On the opposite end, by the films final act I did find myself worn down. I had grown tired of Philip despite the compelling nature of the character.
A part of me is thankful that people like Philip and Ike do crave some degree of solitude. This film pulls no punches in conveying these corrosive personalities, but it does so with a nice smattering of humor and with some very committed performances especially from Schwartzman who is perfectly cast. But in the end I felt exhausted and I was ready to close the book on these people. Was that the film’s desired effect? I’m not certain.