Throughout Listen Up Philip, not once does Philip listen. It’s a pity, because you’ll wish Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) would just shut his overly-opinionated gob. He doesn’t, and thus he drags some ripe filmmaking materials down into the vortex of hate that is created around, and by, this character. We hate Philip, so we hate Listen Up Philip. Shut up, Philip!”
Is it fair to judge a film solely on its hateful leading man? Even if it’s not, Listen Up Philip warrants an exception. Right from the start, his bitter brand of self-aggrandisement gets in the way of forming any connection. The opening scene sees well-healed and acclaimed author Philip run into an old girlfriend (Samantha Jacober). They start discussing his new book, but it basically turns into a session of boasting and chastising for Philip. The 100-odd minutes that follow proceed in much the same fashion. Alex Ross Perry’s film could have been a worthy exploration of artistic temperament and alienation, but Perry has shot himself in the foot in one crucial way: he’s made a character piece centred on a character no-one wants to be around. Granted, Schwartzman has played variants of this kind of irritability before (think of Max Fischer’s over-confidence in Rushmore), but this is a new level of hatefulness, spiralling from controlled ego into full-on asshole-ry. Bugger off, Philip!
Philip is on the cusp of publishing his second novel, Obidant, and his ego is becoming more fragile, and thus his demeanour becomes more prickly, to the detriment of all around him and the audience. First in the firing line is Elisabeth Moss’ Ashley, who Philip has somehow convinced to stay around long enough to earn the title of long-term girlfriend, but even she acknowledges he’s “a cruel, miserable person.” Declarations like this are when Listen Up Philip earns its few laughs, because this grown-up problem child deserves all the scorn he can get. There’s no respite from his largely-monotone poison. Aided and abetted by Eric Bogosian’s bone-dry voiceover, Schwartzman spends most of the film looking his nose down at people, and repelling them with bile. He’s crushingly, boringly unlikeable. That writer/director Perry would think this would be an interesting lead character simply boggles the mind. WTF, Philip?!
Mercifully, and despite what our protagonist might like to think, he’s not the centre of the universe. Philip befriends Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a Philip Roth-alike who invites Philip to use his home in upstate New York as a country retreat for writing. We get to know Zimmerman a bit, and he proves to be the most interesting role Pryce has had onscreen in a while. He’s almost as bitter as Philip, but his ego and bitterness is at least partly justified by experience and success, plus a dose of moral turpitude on his part (Krysten Ritter shows up for a brief-but-welcome spell as a resentful Zimmerman Jr.). Meanwhile, Perry also allows us to spend a little time with Ashley and her adjusting to life while Philip’s away. She must be a masochist to even feel a little guilty about enjoying it, but let’s be thankful either Philip or the script allow her to breathe. Aside from her adorable feline companion Gadzuki, Moss probably comes out best from this; stylistically she’s far from Peggy Olson here, but there’s still a blend of naïveté and grit to Ashley that marks her as the warmest character in this film by a country mile. Couldn’t we make the film about her instead? Stay away, Philip!
The production values of Listen Up Philip add to the irritation, as they feel like choices Philip himself might have made. Keegan DeWitt’s jazzy score could soundtrack a thousand chin-stroking dinner parties, while Sean Price Williams’ cinematography is afraid to keep more than four feet away from its subjects, with self-aware filtering by Instagram. Listen Up Philip plays like bizarro Hal Ashby. It’s self-consciously chintzy and aged, and populated by egos so sour, they were probably born with lemon wedges in their mouths. Its prime distinction is that it has birthed the most repugnant lead character in recent American cinema. The fact that he shares his name with this reviewer does nothing to redeem it. Oh, **** off, Philip!