SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2014
By Don Simpson | January 28, 2014
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Kate Lyn Sheil, Joséphine de La Baume, Jess Weixler, Dree Hemingway, Joanne Tucker, Eric Bogosian, Brandy Burre, Daniel London, Jennifer Kim, Keith Poulson
With the purposeful font selection in the opening credits, writer-director Alex Ross Perry slyly suggests Philip Roth as a literary reference point for us to approach Philip (Jason Schwartzman), the cringingly acerbic protagonist of Listen Up Philip. Not that this Philip has any pretensions of being Roth himself, but rather he is a Perry-cized version of a Roth character. The title alone suggests that Perry might be attempting to one-up Roth, telling the presumed master how to more effectively create ego-maniacal protagonists who are self-referential to the point of self-loathing.
A pretentious prick, to put it kindly, Philip is a New York City literary snob who is still reeling from the success of his debut novel. Leading up to the release of his much anticipated follow-up, Obidant, Philip’s monstrous ego takes a severe blow when he receives word that the New York Times will be running a negative review. With the bad news also comes some good. Not only has Philip been named one of the “35 Under 35” by a highly regarded publication, but Philip has also been invited to go on a “talking tour” alongside an even more famous young writer, Josh (Keith Poulson). Most importantly, Philip’s literary idol — Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) — declares himself an unabashed fan of Obidant and would like to meet with him.
At home, Philip’s relationship with his longterm girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), is strained. As with everyone else in his life, Ashley seems to be at wit’s end with Philip’s unbridled neuroses. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is when Philip accepts an invitation from Ike to stay at his upstate summer home for a while, thus leaving Ashley alone in Manhattan. Philip’s excuse is that he cannot write in Manhattan, so he needs the contemplative solace of upstate New York to get his creative juices flowing again. Of course, Philip was able to pen two novels while living in Manhattan, so this all seems like a blatant lie, which Ashley sees right through.
After taking up residency with Ike and his lethargically parasitic daughter (Krysten Ritter), Philip’s already prickly personality grows increasingly pricklier. A mutually co-dependent relationship, Philip feeds off of Ike’s unwavering friendship and support, while Ike enjoys having a puppy-like protégé to teach all of his malevolent tricks. By the time Ike lands him a lecturer position at a local college, Philip’s ego is at near-toxic levels.
Perry’s perpetually profound film functions as a microcosmic examination of a misanthropic novelist whose rapid rise to notoriety has further exaggerated his narcissistic tendencies. Portrayed with uncanny candor by Jason Schwartzman, Philip is an almost too perfect personification of the arrogant yet neurotic tendencies of New York intelligentsia, specifically in the fragility of their egos. No matter what level of success he achieves, he will never receive all of the recognition and praise that he wholeheartedly believes he deserves. Philip will never be content with his status, he will always find something to fuel his discontentment and disdain. Foremost, Philip will never be happy in a romantic relationship, since it will be utterly impossible for him to find a woman who is meek enough to graciously accept his scathing psychological abuse but is also strong enough to achieve a high enough (but not too high) level of success that will warrant his respect and admiration.
Lensed on warmly saturated Super 16mm by Sean Price Williams (Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, The Color Wheel, Somebody Up There Likes Me) paired with a sublimely contemplative Keegan DeWitt jazz score, Listen Up Philip exudes a timeless air, conjuring up memories of John Cassevetes’ films from the early 1970s. Taking a literary approach to the narrative, Listen Up Philip presents Philip from three different angles, shifting its focus from Philip to Ashley to Ike, and back to Philip again; all the while, the voice of the narrator (Eric Bogosnian) comes and goes, seemingly at whim. Perry’s overt writerly style compliments the tone of its protagonist, further blurring the line between author and subject.
The characters spew a relentless onslaught of acidically-barbed dialogue; each finely manicured word, coarser and more abusive than the one last spoken, is delivered at such rapid-fire precision, as if penned by a hellishly misanthropic Preston Sturges. Listen Up Philip is a film that exists to solicit strong reactions. Just like Philip, it is designed to be hated, just as much as it is made to be loved.