Film of the Week: Listen Up Philip
If you don’t like spoilers, or if you don’t find desolation a source of immense pleasure in films, you might want to skip this first paragraph. But it’s one of the subtle joys of Alex Ross Perry’s downbeat comedy Listen Up Philip that the film ends with its hero, Eric Bogosian’s voiceover tells us, about to become “an isolated and emotionless specter forever remaining a mystery, even to himself.” That there’s the faintest, barely detectable smirk on the face of anti-hero Philip (Jason Schwartzman) suggests, though, that this is a kind of happy ending—of sorts, at a pinch, in the most delicate minor key imaginable.
Another of the aces in Perry’s film is Jason Schwartzman’s presence in the lead. Now, many people don’t find Schwartzman a pleasure; in fact, the glory of this actor is that he has consistently managed to play unlikeable, self-centered, arrogant, often idiotic boy-men (sometimes, all the more idiotic the smarter they are) that you want to slap. And in this he’s gifted with having—is it libelous to say this?—a supremely slappable face. There’s something about the delicately carved fineness of his features, together with the seeming naturalness with which it falls into a look of supercilious contempt, together with those strange cartoon eyebrows that seem to have been dashed on with a thick felt pen, and to the hair, with its dandyish flop… It’s a physiognomy perfectly suited for playing poseurs, pedants, neurotics, and narcissists, and—from the career-making Rushmore onwards—Schwartzman has made these roles his specialty. It’s also a face you can imagine in just about any historical setting: I’ve yet to see him in a 19th-century den of Parisian poètes maudits, which seems an ideal fit, but he was perfect wigged and powdered as an infantile Louis XVI in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Hell, who wouldn’t have revolted?
Often excelling as a supporting character actor of the old school, Schwartzman now gets another lead role cut to his cloth in Listen Up Philip, as Philip Lewis Friedman, an up-and-coming novelist (his second is about to published) with a wildly inflated view of his own genius, and an animus against all humanity. Schwartzman sets the key note in the opening sequence in which Philip meets an ex-girlfriend in a New York coffee shop and berates her in a sour carping monotone for a) being late and b) having failed him in every conceivable way. Having got into gear, Philip decides to give his friend Parker “an equally robust dressing-down.” Destroyed, Parker calls Philip a “fucking Jew bastard” and then—in one of the muted killer payoffs that punctuate the film—heads off forlornly in his wheelchair.
Listen Up Philip is inescapably not only a very New York film, but a rather New Yorker-ish one, reveling in its literariness. You’ll get a tang of The Squid and the Whale, and echoes of The Royal Tenenbaums: the latter because the film essentially “is” a novel, narrated by Bogosian’s off-screen omniscient storyteller (earnestly intoning what sounds like a very stodgy, old-fashioned slab of psychological realism), and because it too contains an array of apocryphal book jackets, brilliantly crafted by Teddy Blanks, who has also designed credits in perfect Seventies paperback cover typeface.
Perry’s film won’t strike you as something entirely, head-spinningly sui generis—but I like the way that it intersects with certain other things, in film and literature, in a very stylish and witty way. A key reference point is the work of Philip Roth, who has his surrogate here in the figure of Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an elderly, soured hermit of American letters, who after decades alienating everyone he knows, has headed to the country for a life of seclusion. He’s a little bit Roth himself, in a cruel way, and a great deal of Roth’s fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, and of E.I. Lonoff, the literary mentor to young Zuckerman in Roth’s The Ghost Writer.
Much of the narrative revolves around Philip abandoning his girlfriend, photographer Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), to stay in the country with Zimmerman, whose justifiably embittered daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter, terrifically hard-edged) is also in residence. Then the story takes a swerve as Zimmerman secures Philip a teaching post at a rural college, where he has a miserable time playing the mysterious loner, and tangles with a highbrow French faculty member (Joséphine de La Baume). This, in fact, is one of many swerves: Philip himself drops out of the action for long stretches, while the film accompanies Ashley as she gets used to living without him. In one very pithy scene, she encounters a bearded slob in a bar (the episode ends with wonderful bathos, with the two of them bemused astride their bicycles); in another, she gets herself a cat named Godzooky which, thanks to a fine stroke of editing by Robert Greene, hisses with perfect timing. Moss shows a superb command of urban neurosis, and has a lot of fun, but is far too tough and intelligent for Ashley to come across as just goofy (much as I admire Greta Gerwig, I was somewhat relieved that it wasn’t her in the role).
Then there’s the continuing meltdown taking place at the Zimmerman estate—a retreat to which the failing author long ago repaired, to escape city distractions, only to find it’s no place to write. Ever wondered what literary lions do for months on end in their Walden-esque isolation? Listen Up Philip offers one suggestion, as Zimmerman and another venerable scribbler, Norm (Yusef Bulos), try to spend a drunken evening with two younger women, excruciatingly: it ends with Philip wistfully invoking Zimmerman’s heyday, when “women were looser” and more likely to be impressed by writers. I can’t remember when Pryce had a truly juicy screen role like this one, but he lets rip here, his Zimmerman creating a new benchmark for self-pitying cantankerousness.
Above all, Listen Up Philip is an extremely strange film, in its downbeat way. It’s novelistic in its digressions, its waywardly unstitched time scheme, its killer one-liners that are all the more effective in that often you can’t always pin down just why they’re so funny; it’s to do with tone, with a poised, deliberate off-ness about them, as in Philip’s “I’m not successful, I’m notable. There’s a difference” or in his remark to Yvette about “My uncle. Mon oncle. Like the film.” But most of all, Listen Up Philip is as much jazzy as literary, with Keegan DeWitt’s elegant, distracted score (sublime trumpet by Rod McGaha) sometimes riding right over the dialogue with perfect insouciance. This is a film that hypnotically, perplexingly, just drifts. So for that matter does its handheld camera, with Sean Price Williams shooting entirely in Super 16mm—light blazing in from unexpected corners into the overall dark tones to evoke a very improvised feel, although this film could hardly be more knowingly contrived. I haven’t seen Alex Ross Perry’s earlier films Impolex (09) and The Color Wheel (11), but this makes me feel like catching up; I’ll try and slip them in ahead of my Roth backlog.
Listen Up Philip screens October 9 and 10 in the New York Film Festival and opens October 17.