Sean K. Cureton

Listen Up Philip Offers a Sermon On Narcissism

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on June 25, 2016 at 11:18 am
Listen Up Philip Poster

Tribeca Film

Listen Up Philip (2014)
Directed by Alex Ross Perry
VOD Rating: Liked It

There are several times in which the lead character of writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip tests the viewer’s patience and capacity for empathetic identification. Films want you to sympathize with their protagonists so often that one can forget that sometimes movies can examine the lives lived of people who are antagonistically deplorable. Such is the case with Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), an aspiring New York novelist and character who draws immediate inspiration from the coterie of bourgeois literati that have come before him. Thanks in no small part to the film’s aesthetic allusions to the greatest works of Philip Roth, and bolstered by Schwartzman’s sneering narcissism that adds lighter shades of Bret Easton Ellis to the proceedings, Listen Up Philip is an unusually rare treat. The life of the next great American novelist is treated with broad strokes of deadpan satire, but under Perry’s watchful eye the production never strays too far into the adjacent realm of melodramatic comedy.

Listen Up Philip is an alienating and difficult viewing experience, and as such it serves to build up one of the greatest scripted characters in recent memory, in which Perry has seemingly discovered fertile ground to sow the seeds of one of the more remarkable films of the past ten years, and delivers a fascinating dichotomy of the sins and virtues of the life and mind of the writer. It’s not often that a Jonathan Franzen type is placed at the front and center of a filmed drama, which is part of why the production is so immediately unique if not always engrossing. Philip Lewis Friedman plays the part of the East Coast intellectual with all of the baggage that comes with such a personal signifier, and coasts through the streets of Manhattan as though he already owns everything by virtue of his own assumed sophistication. Schwartzman seemingly relishes playing each and every exchange with another character with undisguised contempt and sub-textual self-loathing. The feeling of never being able to love oneself is so much a part of the fabric of the artistic pursuit at this point that is should come as no surprise that the main villain of Listen Up Philip gradually reveals himself to be the eponymous author himself.

When New York becomes too distracting for Philip, the young novelist seeks refuge with Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an aging writer whose early works of fiction serve as the high watermark in literary innovation in the mind of Schwartzmann’s junior scribbler. Pryce is a crucial figure throughout the second half of Listen Up Philip, as his own musings on the importance of hermitic isolation reflect just one of the many paths that Philip may find himself going down in the future. Pryce as Zimmerman serves as something of a father figure and the last remnant of the patriarchal past, whose suggested alcoholism and misogynistic rage against his estranged daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) turn him into a pseudo-stand-in John Updike. If Philip hopes to escape the cold winters of an inescapable melancholy laid out for him under Zimmerman’s tutelage, then there doesn’t appear to be much hope in the realm of literary writing. Listen Up Philip subversively suggests that the life of a young writer is dictated by the isolationism of the oft-cited ivory tower, an expansive abode that becomes a prison the longer one stay within its emotionally restrictive environs.

The way in which Listen Up Philip tacitly acknowledges the successes and failures of some of the most notorious American novelists of the twentieth century as they meet the oncoming twenty-first century that will render them culturally irrelevant is spellbinding. Meanwhile, Philip might yet chart a different course for himself as the voice of the next generation if only he could get out of his own way. Schwartzmann’s brutally vicious attacks against his ex-girlfriend Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss) throughout Perry’s film present the case for Philip’s inherited bigotry while shedding light on some of the worst facets of anyone who would presume to write a great work of American fiction. There is little hope for many of the characters in Listen Up Philip, save for Ashley who is able to escape the suffocating neediness of Philip’s insatiable need for flagellating adulation. When Ashley shuts Philip out of their apartment one final time towards the end of the movie, Perry provides a final pronouncement on Philip’s character that would be tragic if it weren’t for the sense of triumph earned by Ashley, and presumably appropriated to great sardonic effect by Philip in isolation.

Listen Up Philip is currently available on Amazon Prime Video, and is my Movies on VOD Recommendation of the Week.

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