×

Film Review: ‘Listen Up Philip’

Jason Schwartzman shines as a self-absorbed writer who doesn't quite learn the err of his ways in Alex Ross Perry's sharp and darkly funny third feature.

With:
Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, Josephine de La Baume, Eric Bogosian, Jonathan Pryce, Jess Weixler, Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil.

So rueful and wise is writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” about artistic ambition, youthful arrogance and middle-aged regrets, it comes as a shock to discover that Perry himself is not yet even 30. That gives this remarkably achieved feature a precocity nearly equal to that of the prodigal fiction writer who rests at its center, honing his craft at the expense of any and all meaningful relationships in his life. It’s a familiar tale, but one told by Perry with immense filmmaking verve and novelistic flourish, and acted by an exceptional ensemble cast. “Philip” won’t curry much favor with those critics and auds who routinely castigate the Coen brothers and Noah Baumbach for their dearth of “likable” characters, but those with slightly more jaundiced eyes will feel right at home. By any measure, the pic formally announces Perry as one of the most promising young talents on the indie scene.

Actually Perry’s third feature, following the micro-budget, Pynchon-esque “Impolex” in 2009 and the more widely screened “The Color Wheel” in 2011, “Listen Up Philip” reps a quantum leap for the filmmaker in terms of its narrative ambitions, the complexity of its characters, and the confidence with which Perry handles his “name” cast. That includes a tailor-made role for Jason Schwartzman, whose Philip Lewis Friedman could be “Rushmore’s” Max Fischer a decade down the road, or a junior version of Jeff Daniels’ bilious, self-loathing author from “The Squid and the Whale.”

Popular on Variety

When we first meet him, Philip is a New York literary star on the rise, with a hit debut novel (“Join the Street Parade”) behind him and a second (sporting the suitably pretentious title of “Obidant”) about to be published. But thanks to that curse common to writers, Philip is anything but happy or well adjusted, sure that his success is doomed to be short-lived, and indifferent or outright hostile to anyone who doesn’t share his self-centric worldview — including his live-in photographer girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss, excellent).

These early passages of “Listen Up Philip” rush at the viewer in short, staccato scenes accompanied by the running voiceover of an omniscient narrator (Eric Bogosian, a la Alec Baldwin in “The Royal Tenenbaums”), which creates the sense that Philip is forever transfiguring his life into fiction, even as it is happening to him in the moment. And Perry, who cast himself as a snarkier-than-thou aspiring writer in “The Color Wheel,” sets up one hilariously egocentric moment after the next: Scheduled to set off on a promotional tour, Philip decides (to his publisher’s understandable alarm) to forgo all publicity and let “Obidant” speak for itself; asked to write a magazine profile of a fellow young writer, Philip agrees, only to quickly sabotage things by proposing to his subject that they get into a fistfight. At every step, Schwartzman is wonderfully callow and oblivious, like a spoiled only child still throwing tantrums in his 30s and expecting to get away with it.

The movie comes to focus on Philip’s burgeoning friendship with one of his literary heroes, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a prolific ’70s novelist celebrated for his bestselling “Madness and Women,” and a clear surrogate for another Philip (Roth). Zimmerman (the name nods to Roth’s own longtime alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman) takes a paternal interest in the younger man of letters, inviting him for an extended stay at his upstate home, and eventually securing him a teaching post at a small liberal-arts college. Perhaps he sees in Philip something of himself, or at least an eager protege to whom he can proffer such wisdom as: “Don’t make yourself any more miserable than you need. Leave that to the women you love. That’s pretty much what they’re there for.” It’s a role that fits Pryce, who gave one of his best performances as the writer Lytton Strachey in “Carrington,” even more snugly than Philip does Schwartzman — the literary lion well past his prime, deeply in love with the sound of his own voice, and a portrait of where Philip himself might end up in a few decades’ time.

But this isn’t just Philip’s story. In a risky structural device that owes more to literature than to cinema (specifically, per Perry, to William Gaddis’ legendary debut novel, “The Recognitions”), “Listen Up Philip” puts its title character on hold for a lengthy mid-film stretch, shifting its focus back to Ashley as she picks up the pieces of her post-Philip life. Then Perry does the same thing for Zimmerman, whom we see battling writer’s block and haphazardly trying to smooth out his fraught relationship with his own adult daughter (Krysten Ritter). The cumulative effect is like listening a series of inspired solos by the members of a jazz ensemble, and it makes “Listen Up Philip” that rare movie in which no character feels subordinate.

In Philip, Perry has created the kind of character sure to repel viewers who crave conventional heroes and recoil at seeing their own worst tendencies splayed large on the screen. At every step, he makes incredibly poor decisions, shows staggering insensitivity to anyone else’s feelings, and seems congenitally unable to learn from past mistakes. Yet it’s to Perry and Schwartzman’s credit that we also see how Philip’s ego, while inflated to massive proportions, retains an eggshell fragility: the driven perfectionist who craves affirmation; the hapless relationship partner who nevertheless craves the company of another. If that doesn’t make the character entirely sympathetic, it does make him eminently relatable, at least for those who believe it is one of the functions of art to reflect life as we live it and not merely as we wish it to be.

“Listen Up Philip” feels at once timeless in its sense of the tension between a writer’s life and work, and very much of the moment in its nostalgia for hardcover books with graphically elaborate dust jackets (a whole series of which have been custom-designed for the movie by Teddy Blanks and Anna Bak-Kvapil), and for a New York where intellectual rather than financial life set the pulse of the city. Certainly, the city seems alive with a warm, bohemian glow in the exquisite Super 16mm lensing of d.p. Sean Price Williams, whose lucid handheld camera bobs and weaves much like a pen in a writer’s hand.

Film Review: 'Listen Up Philip'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 23, 2014. Running time: 109 MIN.

Production: A Washington Square Films/Sailor Bear production. (International sales: Cinetic, New York.) Produced by Katie Stern, Joshua Blum, James M. Johnston, Toby Halbrooks, David Lowery. Executive producer, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos. Co-producer, Michaela McKee.

Crew: Directed, written by Alex Ross Perry. Camera (color, Super 16mm), Sean Price Williams; editor, Robert Greene; music, Keegan DeWitt; production designer, Scott Kuzio; art director, Fletcher Chancey; set decorator, Nora Mendis; costume designer, Amanda Ford; sound, Clayton Castellanos; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Ryan M. Price; assistant director, Inna Braude; casting, Susan Shopmaker, Lois Drabkin.

With: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, Josephine de La Baume, Eric Bogosian, Jonathan Pryce, Jess Weixler, Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil.

More Film

  • Nardjes A.

    ‘Invisible Life’s’ Karim Ainouz Drops Trailer for 'Nardjes A.’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    On Feb. 14 last year, Karim Aïnouz arrived in Algeria to trace via the story of his parents the Algerian Revolution which happened 60 years ago – its 1954-62 War of Independence from France. The uprising he very quickly started to shoot, however, was one happening right then, the Revolution of Smiles, whose first street [...]

  • Call of the Wild

    Harrison Ford in 'The Call of the Wild': Film Review

    Dogs, in their rambunctious domesticated way, can lead us overly civilized humans a step or two closer to the natural world. So it’s only fitting that the best dog movies have saluted that unruly canine spirit without a lot of artificial flavoring. Hollywood’s classic dog tales, like “Old Yeller” (1957) or “Lassie Come Home” (1943), [...]

  • Adventures of a Mathematician

    Indie Sales Unveils Trailer For 'Adventures of a Mathematician' (EXCLUSIVE)

    In the run up to Berlin’s European Film Market, Indie Sales has unveiled the trailer for Thor Klein’s “Adventures of a Mathematician” which had its world premiere in Palm Springs. The film tells the inspiring true story of a Polish-Jewish mathematician who got a fellowship at Harvard and went on to join the prestigious Manhattan [...]

  • Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in SONIC THE

    How Internet Backlash Helped 'Sonic the Hedgehog' Avoid Box Office Disaster

    It’s not a stretch to say Universal’s “Cats” and Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” had two of the most polarizing movie trailers in recent memory. Both caught fire online for all the wrong reasons after fans on social media torched the questionable CGI. “Cats,” an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, used a new science called [...]

  • Neumond Berlin Germany Restaurant

    Berlin Offers Diversity in Restaurant Scene

    Berlin Film Festival attendees have a chance to sample the diverse cuisine of a foodie city. Some of the top pics for a pre-film repast: Adana Grillhaus  Popular on Variety A hugely popular Turkish restaurant in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, Adana Grillhaus now has a second location right around the corner. Manteuffelstr. 86 +49 30 6127790 [...]

  • my salinger year

    Berlin Festival's New Selection Committee Takes Off

    Berlin’s new seven-member selection committee — four women and three men — comprises the core of new director Carlo Chatrian’s programming staff, which is led Canadian critic Mark Peranson. Peranson was the Locarno Film Festival’s chief of programming when Chatrian headed that Swiss festival. This year, Berlin is opening with “My Salinger Year,” starring Sigourney [...]

  • Mariette Rissenbeek Berlin Film Festival Executive

    Mariette Rissenbeek Faces Challenges as Berlin Festival Executive Director

    Making her debut as the new executive director of the Berlin Film Festival this year, Mariette Rissenbeek is facing some big challenges after taking over management duties at one of the world’s biggest public film fests. Rissenbeek and new artistic director Carlo Chatrian succeed Dieter Kosslick, who left an indelible mark on the fest after [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content