Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip concerns Philip, an author in the early stages of his career who we meet as the tide of critical acclaim and commercial success begins to turn in his favour. Ambitions he has harboured his entire adult life soon to be made reality. Our first encounter with him is a lunch date he has arranged with an ex-girlfriend which appears to be designed purely so he can gloat about his new found success and, more to the point, brutally admonish her for her perceived lack of support when Philip was still struggling in the trenches. It tells us everything we need to know about Philip in a few short minutes and lays the tracks for pretty much every encounter to come. If you like your comedy with a strong helping of discomfort and misanthropy, you’ve come to the right place. If not, buckle up.
For Philip is not a nice person. He’s an insecure brat, a bully and a raging egomaniac. Having discovered early in the film the thrill of speaking his mind and unleashing his id, the film goes on to document Philip’s experiments with this newfound model of social engagement. It’s uncomfortable, frustrating and sometimes downright unpleasant to watch him systematically tear down whatever good will existed for him with his few social contacts. Thanks to Schwartzman’s counter intuitively charismatic performance however, it can also be kind of thrilling. And he is very good, never descending into caricature and farce, he plays a unbelievably mean and oblivious jerk who is nevertheless very real. There but for the grace of God goes Max Fisher.
Much of the film details Philip’s involvement with the much older and acclaimed author Ike (Jonathan Price) who sees something of himself in Philip (alarm bells!), taking him under his wing, providing him with encouragement, a place to write and ultimately a job. Ike is also a cantankerous narcissist, in the late stages of his career, sad, lonely and all but cut off from the world, who finds himself buoyed by Philip’s merciless ambition. The two seem to enliven the worst instincts of the other and go about their lives, carrying their intellects like loaded guns, unleashing on anyone who dares to raise their ire.
And yet even amidst the the claustrophobic and mean-spirited world of these two egomaniacs, existing at opposite ends of their career arcs, there’s an oddly humane streak which prevents the film from being a purely joyless exercise in bilous self destruction. It’s just so utterly tragicomic to watch as Philip, even when faced with such a glaring example of where he could be headed, simply cannot stop himself from heading down the same path. Almost to the extent that one could see Philip (and Ike for the matter) as a victim of his own realised ambitions and unchecked egomania. Almost.
Of course the real victims are the mostly unsuspecting victims who cross his path. And none more so than Philip’s on/off girlfriend Lesley (Elizabeth Moss), who inexplicably, and rather sweetly, sticks by Philip far past the point many others would have hit the ejector button. The highlight of the film is easily the extended period of time we spend with Lesley in New York, having been abandoned by Philip for the summer. We see her struggle to come to terms with the separation and slowly regain the sense of self that had previously been trampled by Philip’s narcissistic abuses. It’s a lovely little short film within the greater narrative, lovingly photographed, and leaving us in little doubt as to where Perry’s sympathies truly lie.
Does Perry lean a little too heavily on the stylistic and thematic preoccupations of his influences (he’s given shout outs to John Cassavetes, Woody Allen and Philip Roth among others)? Sure. But there are plenty of glimpses here as to where he could be headed once he manages to draw these influences together into a unique whole – make them his own – and it’s an exciting prospect. In the meantime there’s a kind of thrill in watching a young filmmaker bat these ideas around, playing around in the big kid’s sand pit.
It’s hard not to read the film, Perry’s third feature, as somewhat autobiographical. Although, whether it’s a document of his own fears regarding the worst case scenario following his own early success, or a snot-nosed admission of his actual real world failings remains daringly ambiguous. It’s almost as if he’s directed his own public service announcement – a ‘Don’t Do What Donny Don’t Does’ for young creatives on the cusp of wider acclaim. Let’s hope Perry’s listening. Because Philip? Well, he’s listening alright. The shame of it is all he can hear is the sound of his own voice.