On the surface Listen Up Philip draws comparisons to the movies of Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson (from Jason Schwartzman’s presence to cascaded book covers, and you can even spot the zebra wallpaper from Margot Tenenbaum’s bedroom in an early bar scene), as well as the novels of Philip Roth (in particular The Ghost Writer). But Alex Ross Perry’s film is far more than the sum of its influences.
Listen Up Philip is, essentially, the story of Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), a detached, arrogant and somewhat tragic New York writer who has just published his second novel. But where other films might take a premise like this and turn it into a simple 90-minute comedy-drama with a redemptive character arc, Philip’s inability to change alienates and affects everyone around him.
Perry uses a third-person narrator (Eric Bogosian) who indifferently describes the character emotions and motivations that Philip would not, or perhaps cannot, share with others. This, combined with a sense of timelessness – there are no mobiles or ebooks on show, but we do see a rather ancient computer and a typewriter – hold the audience at a remove befitting its isolated male characters.
Philip’s dedicated romanticism to the mystique of the artist, and the idea of himself as a talented writer rather than a real person, may play a part in his successful career, but it comes at a price. When he finds out that Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce as a sort-of Philip Roth surrogate) likes his book, he ups and leaves his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) in a heartbeat to join Ike at his country retreat, doing, what he says, is best for him. Or, as Ashley puts it, what he’s best at.
Just a warning, there are mild spoilers ahead.
It’s at this stage where films like The Social Network or Whiplash leave behind the love interest, and here’s where Listen Up Philip differs. Perry’s use of literary techniques sees the perspective shift with the seasons, first to Ashley, then to Ike. Meanwhile, our titular protagonist is relegated to the fringes of the film until the final act – and it’s all the better for it.
That’s no knock on Schwartzman, who is excellent here, but Moss’ performance as Ashley is, to use a bit of a cliché, the heart of the film. Both in her personal life and in her career as a successful photographer, Ashley had been stifled and suffocated while Philip’s career dominated their relationship. Free to run her own life, we see her recover, grow and flourish through a range of emotions that we, or anyone around him, would not get from Philip.
Ike’s section serves to deconstruct the mystique of the author that Philip holds in such high regard, and as such it should also act as something of a Ghost of Christmas Future for Philip if he weren’t so blind to, or uninterested in, how pitiful Ike really is. His self-imposed exile to his country retreat, away from all the ‘sycophants’ in the city, hasn’t helped his dwindling creativity. He feeds off Philip’s youthful energy in the hope of reigniting his own career, while continually reminding him that he is no Ike Zimmerman, all the while laughing at lame jokes like ‘academia nuts’. Through his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter), who is attempting to reconcile whatever scraps are left of the relationship with her father, we get a glimpse of the pain and devastation he has caused on those once closest to him. But Philip, of course, doesn’t heed the lesson.
Anyone going in to Listen Up Philip wanting familiar genre conventions, character arcs or even a protagonist in which they will like, may not be in for a fun first viewing. Philip will not change for them, or anyone. But this film is something of a gem. One of those that can burrow under your skin and stay there, all the while growing in your estimation with every passing day. The performances are great across the board, there are some hilarious moments of dark humour, and the use of tight close-ups on the actors’ faces make them seem trapped and highlights their isolation. It also means you can see the multitude of emotions on Ashley’s face, and the absence of them on Philip’s.