A compelling leading character and snappy, witty dialogue make Alex Ross Perry’s new comedy-drama “Listen Up Philip” a delightful snapshot of creative urbanites despite the dark, depressing undertones that lurk beneath the charming facade. It’s a meticulously nuanced character study — as characters exemplify narcissism, loneliness, ambition, depression and nostalgia — that only intrigues, rather than becoming a tiresome pseudointellectual indie film that tries too hard.
Philip (Jason Schwartzman), a writer restlessly awaiting the publication of his promising second novel, trudges through his life in New York City with a deadpan sense of superiority and obsession with personal success, dragging his photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) and his publishing company along with him. After abruptly deciding he doesn’t want to do any press for his upcoming novel, Philip abandons his girlfriend and life in the city and retreats to the summer home of Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an old writer who likes Philip’s work and whom Philip idolizes, to focus on his writing and develop a complex relationship with the fading novelist.
The film would struggle to break the barrier between being captivating and being two hours of watching an asshole ruin people’s lives as successfully as it does without Jason Schwartzman taking on the role of the titular character. His portrayal of the self-absorbed novelist evokes memories of his role as Max Fischer in “Rushmore” as he captures a brooding absurdity counterbalanced with an irresistible quirk in an impressive manner. We watch as he torments pretty much everyone around him with straight-faced insults and selfishness, yet it is hard to completely condemn him simply because he’s so damn funny — like when he’s talking with an ex-girlfriend and he tells her in a monotone voice: “I want to take that cupcake out of your hand right now and throw it so fucking far away from you. God damn it, you make me sick, you’re just a big, old baby. … You’re the worst.”
The visuals and cinematography enhance the intelligent character study that is the true center of the film while providing an interesting aesthetic. A majority of it is shot with unsteady handheld cameras that zoom in claustrophobically close on characters’ faces where there is little else in the shot other than someone’s face or cheek or mouth. This, along with the grainy ’70s visual vibe, enhances the theme of the self and the idea of a bygone innocent past as the characters struggle with relationships with others and with their own minds just as the camera, too, has problems trying to properly focus on more than one person or thing at once.
Perry’s screenplay further allows for a thorough examination of differing psyches, making the film play out more like a classic novel than a movie, which coincides with its literary theme. With the help of an insightful narrator (Eric Bogosian), Perry dedicates whole sections of the film to Ashley and Ike respectively in an observation of the repercussions of Philip’s actions on those around him. This is bittersweet, as the viewer is tugged away from the film’s best asset, Schwartzman, for an extended period of time, but it also provides an idiosyncratic convention that further deepens the film’s analysis.
Although the basis of the plot is a bit worn-out — a lonely writer in New York City who is obsessed with his work and does better with words on a page than in reality — Perry is able to reinvigorate it. This is partly due to the visual style and the acting, but the real life source is its ability to let the characters and the story play out for themselves. Films of similar subject matter or quirkiness tend to feel forced, as it seems as though the movie’s entire purpose is to display the filmmaker’s cleverness, but “Listen Up Philip” contains just the amount of restraint to keep it relatable and charming, rather than being bogged down in indie flexing.
“Listen Up Philip” is playing at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco.
Taran is the assistant arts editor. Contact him at [email protected].