Dir: Alex Ross Perry
Tribeca Film, 2014, US
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter
It’s like Annie Hall remade by Satan.
The script for Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip seems to be fuelled by sheer cruelty. Based upon the multi-award winning author Philip Roth, the title character (Jason Schwartzman) is a revoltingly arrogant author who, with just two novels under his belt, thinks of himself as the toast of New York City, a man interminably hostile towards all who dare to cross his path. Simply put, he’s a cunt. To watch him constantly belittle everyone he meets is alternately aggravating, ruefully funny, or just plain sad, the latter becoming more prominent as it is gradually made apparent that Philip is irreversibly lodged within a bottomless pit of misanthropy, riddled with anger, encased in anxiety. Throughout the snapshot of his life that this film covers, we see the period of time in which he finally seals off all exits from relationships, and by the end, the audience can only look on in pity.
Philip arrives in an ongoing stream of NYC-based post-recession character studies that arose in the shadow of Woody Allen, including Tiny Furniture (2010), Girls (2012-), Frances Ha (2013), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and Whiplash (2014). These take the critical, area-specific existentialism notable in Allen’s films and, excluding Whiplash (which is more Match Point  than Manhattan ), the protagonists of such films are funny, naturally difficult and overly self-aware, never wanting to be a part of any club that would have someone like them as a member. As with the other examples, Philip catches up with its protagonist at a breaking point wherein he realises that changes have to be made; and as with the other examples, he struggles to do so, fumbling instead through various, often amusing, but occasionally crushing episodes. Philip stands apart, however, as its titular character turns out to be more hell-bent on self-destruction than on self-improvement; he is the Tyler Durden to Frances Ha‘s Narrator.
Also in the film’s DNA is Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), which is combined with an attitude similar to that of Llewyn Davis to create a total conundrum of a character, one intent on keeping up appearances at all times, while simultaneously trying his hardest to make that appearance repellent. At the beginning, Philip meets with an old ex-girlfriend from years past, purely so that he can verbally destroy her self worth; next, he does the same with his best friend from college, who is now paraplegic.
Feeling invigorated after unleashing his unsolicited rage, Philip then parades around town being an industry standard dickhouse, including the cancellation of all press events designed to promote the release of his second novel (a monumentally counter-intuitive decision given that he doesn’t have any money). He then goes home to unleash even more tension with the aim of triumphantly sleeping with his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), only that fizzles into disappointment due to the amount of distance that has come between them (the majority of which is his own doing). Later, he estranges her completely by moving to live with his literary hero Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), whose own sociopathy is reignited by Philip’s youthful megalomania, re-establishing rifts between Ike and his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter). Basically, everything around the central character turns sour, and quick.
But Listen Up Philip isn’t just built upon reprehensible characters waxing intolerable with no development; Melanie, for instance, is embittered after years of her life being impacted by her father’s awful behaviour, a feeling that reaches boiling points whenever she is forced to spend time with him. Despite her propensity for flipping out, her disposition is one of desperate suffering as opposed to mere bitchiness. More interestingly, Ashley’s meanness towards Philip appears only reactionary; she seem genuinely lovely after the pair officially split. Later, she confronts him with calculated, well-prepared cruelty purely to escape any further wrath he may have left over for her, and also to repay him for his many soliloquies of unilateral hatred.
Even when she is alone and single, Philip’s shadow looms large over her life, and the hurt that he caused her, so she emerges from their relationship in a state of awkwardness and anxiety. Despite not getting along with Philip in the slightest, she tends to act naturally in his company; but with others, she appears to behave slightly oddly, hesitating before speaking, and often zoning out from conversations entirely. Not only does this convincingly capture her post-break-up trauma, but also serves to highlight the strange comfort even the most broken relationships can bring. Listen Up Philip may appear loose and unfocused at first glance, but it presents a lifelike reflection on human connection that is surprisingly fresh and intelligent, and some of its more poignant moments have the power to belt a viewer from their feet.
As if the nods to Allen and Metropolitan weren’t retro enough, the movie is shot on 16mm, with an Annie Hall-esque (1977) piano jazz soundtrack, Network (1976) style narration, and with the majority of the characters clad in tweed jackets. Listen Up Philip is thus drenched in nostalgia, which makes the projected anguish seem more painful, and indeed, the handheld camera and consistent use of close-ups intensify the film’s emotional attack. And it is an attack; the movie is almost as uncompromising as its lead character, choosing not to abide too closely to convention, or even to the traits of its influences, but to come alive as a breathing portrait of a complex and perfectly rendered character, and of less-than-desirable emotional states. While some may find that off-putting, fans of character- and mood-driven movies will find a lot to love in Listen Up Philip. Just be warned that some of the characters are outright despicable.
- L. G. Ball