It takes a special kind of gift to make a movie about terrible people. When a film’s main character (or characters) is a despicable human being, its filmmakers must strike a delicate balance in order to both keep it engaging for the audience and not overly deferential toward its pro-antagonists. Hollywood’s history is riddled with anti-heroes and psychotics like Travis Bickle, Patrick Bateman or (to a lesser extent) Dirty Harry. Charisma is a linked trait among them all, helmed by undeniable character actors like De Niro or Bale or Eastwood or Nicholson. It is easy to enjoy them without losing sight of their darker sides. But what if the characters aren’t charismatic leading men? Enter writer/director Alex Ross Perry's newest film, Listen Up Philip.
The Philip in question is Philip Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), a novelist and member of the sort of Northeast liberal literary elite that usually inhabit Noah Baumbach movies. He lives with his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), for whom he can barely contain his contempt, and seethes within himself as he awaits the publishing of his most recently completed work. He hates basically everyone but himself (he loves himself) and his idol/mentor Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), himself a misanthrope of epic proportions. Uninterested in promoting his book and frustrated by the noise of the city, he jumps at the chance of retreating to Zimmerman’s seasonal house upstate.
There is practically nothing redeeming about Philip Friedman. He’s a good writer, very good even, but his talent does not excuse his attitude. His relationship with his girlfriend is a one-way street, entirely focused on his own needs and desires, and he never considers the opinions of others when making decisions, even major life ones. He does have an acerbic wit to him; it is hidden beneath layers of neuroses and staggering overconfidence, but it is possible to see how someone could be drawn to him in the short term. The same can be said about Zimmerman; their pairing is inevitable and thoroughly unhealthy for themselves and everyone around them. The kicker here is that neither man sees their flaws as flaws, instead using them as a foundation for nauseating self-confidence. These people are entirely convinced they are better than everyone around them. It doesn’t matter whether that’s actually true.
The world of Listen Up Philip lives at the corner of Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach. Arguably two of the preeminent masters on the subject of the arrested development of overly cultured literary types, their footprints are found in the very fabric of Ross Perry’s work here. It’s more Baumbach than Allen (Ross Perry’s are more baldly mean spirited and they seem less driven by their neurotic tendencies); films like Kicking and Screaming and (especially) The Squid and the Whale are certainly foundational to its DNA, but Listen Up Philip still feels like it is its own work with its own voice. Much of that can be laid at the feet of its cast.
Schwartzman is the catalyst; his Philip is the darker brother of Albert from I Heart Huckabees, equally driven in his passions, though in this case his passion is himself instead of saving the wetlands. The fact that Philip can be so watchable yet so thoroughly and unflinchingly despicable is quite the gambit. Equally impressive is Pryce, who internalizes many of Schwartzman’s quirks and reflects them back with an undercurrent of years of cultivation. Ike is just an older, more cynical and even less tactful version of Philip, so of course they get along swimmingly. Elisabeth Moss’ Ashley is the other side of the coin, more baldly emotional in her portrayal. She is notably more sympathetic; though she is clearly a much nicer person than her boyfriend, she too is not always on the side of the angels. No one is safe from Ross Perry’s deconstruction. Moss is coming into her own, making the transition from the small screen to the big one with confidence and ease. More performances like this and she will be in high demand moving forward.
For all of its awfulness of character, Listen Up Philip never lags. It is propelled forward by narration (in the form of Eric Bogosian, probably the one performance that remains entirely neutral), so often a negative cliche among the Sundance selections but effective here. Its performances are fantastic and engaging, acerbic and witty and hilarious. Its dressing down of the intellectual elite, those who trade in superiority and tweed jackets, is nearly unparalleled. There is a heart at its center, charred though it may be, and an incredible energy that keeps the pace light and easily digestible. It is a film designed to please those it relentlessly tears apart, and easily succeeds in doing so. It is a delightful little picture about dreadful, vile people, easily one of the more watchable and entertaining comedic films of the year.