Philip, Stark

A savagely frank character study of a toxically narcissistic novelist.

Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip (2014)
Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip.

Courtesy of Tribeca Film

Listen Up Philip, the third feature from writer/director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel), may be this year’s most unpleasant movie I’ve nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed. The film’s antihero, a self-absorbed schmuck of a novelist named Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), is nearly unbearable to spend time with, for the other characters onscreen as much as for the audience: One minute in his overbearing, insecure presence can feel like 10. Yet the film’s 108-minute running time skips nimbly by. Philip Lewis Friedman is an atrocious bore, but as played by Schwartzman and written by Perry, his story isn’t, because this savagely frank character study of a toxic narcissist takes time—unlike Philip himself—to listen to the damaged people he leaves in his wake.

There have been elements of this character in almost every role Schwartzman has played. He’s a sultan of smarm, unsurpassed at conveying the inner lives of young men too complacent and self-impressed to have much of an inner life at all. The essential comedy of a Schwartzman character frequently derives from his failure to even attempt to disguise his own self-serving behavior, his bewilderment at the very notion that ordinary laws of ethics, politesse, or causation might apply to him. This trait usually falls somewhere on the spectrum between endearing  (Rushmore) and neurotic (Bored to Death), but Listen Up Philip marks the first time I’ve seen him play it as a straight-up pathology. If you’re allergic to that particular J-Schwartz vibe, Listen Up Philip will likely repel you. But if you can, as my yoga teacher says, breathe with it, you’ll find Perry’s script doesn’t just lazily tap into the actor’s established set of tricks. It deftly deconstructs them, along with the whole literary-young-man-in-love genre once exemplified by the films of Woody Allen, and in more recent years by those of Noah Baumbach.

We join Philip in medias res, which is to say in medias being as terrible to everyone as he apparently always is. He’s meeting an ex-girlfriend (Samantha Jacober) at a sandwich counter to give her a signed copy of his second novel, the opaquely titled Obidant—a gift he sourly withdraws after she’s late for their lunch date. As he sulks home to his supportive girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), then steps out for a meeting with his less-supportive publisher (“Don’t hold my calls,” the man instructs his assistant as the sit-down with Philip begins), Philip’s story is accompanied by a voice-over—and not your run-of-the-mill, first-person, premise-establishing voice-over. The voice is Eric Bogosian’s, speaking in the third person and the past tense, with a degree of insight into Philip’s (and, sometimes, other characters’) internal states that hints at narrative omniscience. Is this, perhaps, the narrator of a future Philip Friedman book, in which an older, wiser author looks back on the story of his awful younger self? Or could it be an unpublished manuscript by Ike Zimmerman (a very fine Jonathan Pryce), the equally insufferable older novelist who becomes Philip’s mentor and surrogate father? (Zimmerman, a prolific hermit on semihostile terms with his family, seems modeled at least in part after Philip Roth.)

It’s also possible the voice-over may be recounting these events from the point of view of some third, unnamed person or being, someone who brings knowledge of the characters’ past, present, and future—not to mention a healthy dose of rueful irony—to his recounting of the misadventures of this stubbornly unhappy young man.

That narrating voice veers away midway through the movie to explore Ashley’s experience during the period when Philip, blocked on his third novel, abruptly abandons her for an extended sabbatical at Ike Zimmerman’s country retreat, leaving it unclear whether their relationship is over. This stretch of the film provides a welcome breather from the suffocating moroseness of Philip and Ike—but it also functions as a kind of point-of-view solo, a free-form riff that opens up the movie. Best of all, it gives the always superb Moss a chance to explore her character beyond the familiar type of the mistreated and abandoned girlfriend, especially in one exhilarating scene in which she finally tells Philip off, then shuts the door behind him to reckon with her sudden aloneness. The sense of freedom and movement that makes this abrupt midmovie POV shift feel unexpected yet right is also at play in the warm jazz score, composed by Keegan DeWitt, and in the mobile but not jolting Super-16mm cinematography by Sean Price Williams.

Perry’s joke-dense dialogue ping-pongs over the net between smart and silly, often hitting a screwball rhythm reminiscent of Wes Anderson: “You’re a man of contradictions.” “No, I’m not.” But the script can also bite sharply into the self-deluding justifications of Philip and Zimmerman, his partner in writerly self-love. The brilliantly designed book covers for their combined works—with pompous titles like Necessity Never Rests, Madness & Women, or I, Zimmerman—stand among the best jokes of the movie, sending up in a few choice images the whole institution of the macho literary novelist. (Stay through the credits for a bonus montage of more hilariously dead-on book jackets created by Teddy Blanks, who also did the retro-style titles.)

For all its tart-on-the-palate pleasures, Listen Up Philip isn’t for everyone. In addition to the heavy dose of Schwartzman and the by now way overfamiliar milieu of white bohemian Brooklyn, there’s the movie’s fairly thoroughgoing anti-humanism. Without revealing anything about Philip’s fate, I can say Perry gives us little reason to believe in his eventual redemption. But he makes us—or he made me, or he made me at least a little of the time—root for Philip anyway, if only because wishing this empty a life even on this colossal a prick seems like … well, something Philip would do. But there are other characters—mainly the women, including Moss’ Ashley, Joséphine de La Baume as a competitive French lit professor who unwisely gets involved with Philip, and the wildly gifted Krysten Ritter as Zimmerman’s resentful grown daughter—who do exhibit some degree of moral insight and capacity to look outside themselves, so the film’s pessimistic vision of contemporary adult life isn’t complete.

That voice-over, though—is it possible that, like the direct address of the title (“Listen up!”), that wistfully ironic third-person narration is meant to be understood in the spirit of benevolent admonition, a cautionary tale to viewers about what could happen if we let ourselves stray too far down Philip’s charmless, blindly careerist path? All I know is that, while it’s a character portrait of a morally small man, Listen Up Philip doesn’t feel like a morally small movie. The film has a generosity and amplitude of vision that overflow its modest scale and seemingly familiar story. Philip Lewis Friedman the novelist can’t stop anxiously calibrating his precise degree of importance. (“Do you think of me more as notable or noteworthy?” he asks one unimpressed interlocutor.) But Alex Ross Perry the writer/director doesn’t need to sweat it: He’s arrived.