I understand and respect Philip Friedman. I don’t necessarily agree with how he carries himself or how he deals with others, but I feel like in another life I could have turned out like the “protagonist” of Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip. A brilliantly literate and aggressively deadpan look at a successful writer at a crossroads in his career, Perry’s film skewers not only academic entitlement, but the general human capacity to tolerate (or in this case, intolerate) bullshit in all forms.
Philip (Jason Schwartzman) has just completed his sophomore publishing effort, hot on the heels of a worldwide best seller that validated his more egotistical belief that he’s one of the best in the world at what he does. He sees the people around him as “assholes with no loyalty.” He has no patience for gladhanding with the press. He wishes people had the audacity and chutzpah to say something that can be mean and honest to him at the same time instead of feigning kindness. He’s a hurtful braggart with a disingenuous laugh, but he’s actually trying with all of his might to make people around him treat him in kind. He’s not a miserable person, just an asshole, and in Perry’s world all that’s going to change about him is a few key lessons that he’ll learn about life in general rather than about how he treats everyone around him.
I know that kind of person, and truthfully every successful writer had their own Philip inside of them or they wouldn’t be where they are today. There has to be a careful 60/40 balance (at least) of thinking you’re the shit to crippling self doubt. Philip is more of a 90/10 kind of person, but that doesn’t invalidate his talents. In a society where people like Kanye West are idolized, Philip doesn’t seem that out of place. Maybe he just comes across as a prick because he’s dabbling in something as antiquated as literature in a dumbed down society.
At any rate, through Philip’s wanton obstinacy we see how success and arrogance can influence those closest to it, specifically through Philip’s suffering girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) and his literary idol turned colleague Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). One relationship is ruined by Philip being a jerk, and the other gets tarnished because someone was a jerk to Philip.
The differences between the relationships gives Perry’s film a considerable amount of dramatic momentum even when Schwartzman – in not only the best role of his career, but one that he seems born to play – isn’t on screen.
Ashley is a successful photographer who doesn’t necessarily need Philip’s validation to be happy. Perry never spells out for the audience what the early years of their lives were like – and some omniscient narration delivered by Eric Bogosian only helps to fill in certain gaps in the story – but one can tell from how she looks at Philip that she still loves him dearly. The problem is that his brusque nature has caused her to stop respecting him. She is now either seeing a new Philip or the one that he kept hidden to try and impress her when they first started dating. Either way, her heart is slowly breaking, and Philip, in his biggest sin, seems oblivious to anything other than himself. Philip’s only moments of sounding like a liar are when he half-heartedly asks her how her day went. He sounds like he cares, but it sounds like a caring person on autopilot; exhausted by the notion of having to put time into someone else after they’ve used all of it up on themselves.
Despite the central focus on an irredeemable character, Perry bravely allows Moss to carry a large chunk of the film on her own in a realistic sequence of dealing with absence and loss of love that’s also probably the best sequence in any film this year. It’s empowering without belabouring a point, and while the exemplary work of Moss might seem like a side trip in a film about a bourgeois aspiring dickhead to some, it’s actually a reminder from Perry that honesty takes all forms, both literal and emotional. It’s about two people who have grown apart in different ways, and their conflicting definition of what it means to be honest and caring creates great drama and catharsis for the audience. She’s clearly right, and Philip’s clearly wrong about her, but he’ll never admit to that because his only belief is in a form of self-worship that could blow up in his face.
Then there’s the real villain of the piece, Ike Zimmerman, played with outstanding panache by Pryce in a career best performance. He’s such a literary figurehead – an erudite wordsmith cast whose career seems a pastiche of early Rabbit era Philip Roth and Money era Martin Amis – that he seems to even inform the shooting style of the film. The 16mm cinematography seems indicative of the kind of person that Philip wants to be and the era the character wishes he were from – the very era that Zimmerman seems to have paused himself in because he was flourishing when 16mm was all the rage.
In an effort to enable Philip’s shirking of his press and boyfriend duties, the award winning author that hasn’t written a valuable or vital manuscript in decades allows Philip to stay at his vacation home and offers him a job teaching at a rural university. It’s not an altruistic or honest thing for Ike to do to Philip. It takes advantage of Philip’s idolatry and his belief that Ike is on the level and not at all the falsely charming sycophants he wants to rid from his life. Ike invites Philip into his life as a diversion, a hope that by aligning himself with this still relatively young 30-year old wunderkind he can have one more shot at relevancy. It’s unspoken in Perry’s on-point screenplay, but there’s a distinct sense that Ike’s an opportunist who wants to take credit for Philip’s success before it’s too late, and despite not being around as a “mentor” for Philip’s first two novels.
When Philip is around Ike, he’s at his happiest, but if the sequence with Ashley represents people happy to be rid of Philip, the film’s second most riveting moment shows that Philip’s crossroads can only lead to him either staying the same person or becoming even more cynical and jaded; becoming the full fledged, passive aggressive miscreant that he so studiously wants to avoid being.
It’s a sequence where Pryce turns Ike into a ball of negative, sleazy energy, and it comes at the tail end of the sequence that showcases Ike’s life sans Philip and his justifiably strained relationship to his daughter (Krysten Ritter). In the middle of the night and after a dinner, Ike and a cohort pick up some age appropriate women and bring them back to Ike’s. Ike can’t close the deal with either woman – although he insists he can – so he calls over Philip to be nothing more than a charming glorified wingman. Immediately, Philip assumes that friends of Ike’s in such an intimate setting are friends of his, but he quickly assesses the situation, only to be berated by his mentor for not helping him get laid.
Philip unwittingly let himself be used, the biggest form of mistrust one human can perpetrate onto another. The real revelatory theme that emerges from Perry’s work here is what we as human beings choose to fixate upon for better or worse. It might be told from the viewpoint of two privileged, white, overnight success stories, but a deeper examination of all the characters in the film reveal different methods of coping with life’s ups and downs that feels perceptive, unforced, and relatable to anyone willing to take time to look within themselves. You might hate Philip and Ike, or you might hate the more likable characters in the cast, but to deny feeling anything means you’ve missed the point entirely.
Listen Up Philip could easily lend itself to the same kind of hyperbolic rhetoric one finds on book jacket blurbs from other famous authors, but it doesn’t take a truly great writer to understand that it’s a raw, unfiltered work of human emotion. It will force attentive viewers to pay more attention to the things we devote our full attention to. Ultimately, the film becomes about one man’s journey from being insufferable to tolerable – free of grandstanding epiphanies and full of subtle truths – but you don’t need to be Philip to understand him, like him, or even begrudgingly respect him by the end.