Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Phillip (2014) begins with a man waiting at a coffee shop for his ex-girlfriend. She arrives late but pleasantly, and he tells her off in a scathing diatribe about all her faults, making clear that his success (he’s an author who has just published his second novel) has been born completely independent from her influence, and that she doesn’t even deserve to be meeting with him right now. Then he storms out. The young woman watches him leave, having just been publicly eviscerated, with a look of bemused ambivalence. “Ah, yes, I remember now,” she seems to say. It doesn’t take us long to recognize that she, along with everyone else, is better off without Philip Lewis Friedman.
The movie becomes a series of anecdotes proving and reproving that Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is an insufferable boor, a person who massages his anxiety with wild flights of arrogant rants against the world (and the people who care about him), whose ego is only equaled by his feelings of under-appreciation, whose ability for pretense and insensitivity is only equaled by his mastery of hypocrisy. He is an uncaring malcontent to his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), whose success he resents, and he only values her for her ability to be an emotional punching bag. He alienates everyone around him, ignores every opportunity, burns every bridge. In the first 20 minutes of the movie, after he’s told off the ex, he harshly gloats while arrogantly dismissing an old writing friend who is unpublished, puts off his publisher and spurns a sweet colleague after leading her on. When a lucrative project to profile an author falls in his lap, he can’t make it a day before he is in a physical fight with the subject and is fired. When Philip discovers that the author has killed himself, he shows a rare moment of regret, not because of any role he might have played in the suicide or for the things he might have been able to do for the young man but because of what a profile of a recently diseased celebrity might have done for his career. “Last interviews are hard to get because, you know, you never know,” he says ruefully. If he has a redeemable quality, it is his writing, but the film is rather ambiguous as to whether that is worthwhile either.
Joining Philip in his unrelentingly obnoxiousness is Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an aging writer who has seen a number of years go by since his last success and who has decided to mentor Philip. Ike shows Philip a number of kindnesses by allowing him access to his summer home to write and hooking him up with a teaching job at a college (though Ike only does that because he considers the position to be beneath him), and the pair are two inedible peas in a distasteful pod. Ike never gives Philip a compliment that isn’t qualified by a statement that reinforces Ike’s own superiority, and Philip is too self-absorbed to care. When Ike possesses the gall to tell Philip something like, “Your association with me makes you remarkable,” all Philip hears is, “You are remarkable.” They are a match made in heaven.
The movie spends much of its time with sincerely unlikable people and sometimes watching Philip’s antics can feel like a chore, but it never completely alienates us. Part of this is the benefit of watching Philip with the shield of a screen between us. His verbal assaults are full of enough ridiculously pretentious and childish barbs that, from our safe distance, they are more buffoonish than hurtful. He is emotionally abusive, there’s no doubt, but he’s too pathetic to be taken seriously. Like the protagonist in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Philip’s arrogant odyssey of self-destruction in the name of art is not to be envied but mocked, and Perry adds just enough lightness to the movie to avoid completely turning us off. What else can we do but laugh at a person who attempts to impress women at a party by bragging about his ability to function while on pills, only to reveal that those pills are his allergy medication?
In many ways, it’s not difficult to see Philip as the grown-up version of the precocious boy Schwartzman played in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998), provided that, during adolescence, the boy lost all of his joy of creation while retaining every ounce of his immature self-importance. Perry seems to be deliberately stealing from Anderson, as we hear heavy-handed narration and see splits from the story that present meticulously art-directed meta information (plagiarism of Anderson though it may be, the tour of covers of Ike’s novels from the ’60s through the ’90s is delightful). He gives Schwartzman the types of cruelly funny asides that Anderson would write for the likes of Bill Murray (and Schwartzman), and he infuses the soundtrack with curious, age-inappropriate music (though Perry favors jazz here over Anderson’s classical or ’60s and ’70s rock). Perry doesn’t have Anderson’s control of storytelling; there are times when the filmmaking is clumsy or cheap looking, but here he matches Anderson’s ability to make the insufferable interesting while swapping Anderson’s affection for the Coen brothers’ disdain. At no point are we encouraged to like Philip, at no point do we think he might be a neat guy to hang out with, at no point do we want him to do anything but get out of our lives.
That feeling leads to the movie’s most problematic sequence, an extended look into Ashley’s life once she and Philip break-up. Out of context, it is a remarkable section, a largely wordless meditation of a life trying to put itself back together. Ashley gets a cat, she attempts to throw herself into work or at other men, but nothing fills the hole, even the cat proves disappointing. The sequence is a study on evocative filmmaking but it doesn’t work because we simply don’t believe that Philip would garner this kind of emotional destruction. We’ve seen so little evidence of his appealing side that we don’t buy Ashley’s emotional state. Like the ex-girlfriend in the opening scene, we expect Ashley to be smart enough to say good riddance. Ike has a strained relationship with his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter), which parallels Philip and Ashley’s while reinforcing the similarities between Ike and Philip, but whereas Melanie has a familial obligation to stick around and a natural reason to be wounded by her father’s curt dismissal of her, Ashley’s pain, while well articulated, is less explicable.
Listen Up Philip is about the entitlement of geniuses, even if those geniuses only exist in their own mind. The Philip in question may also refer to Philip Roth (Philip and Ike’s relationship subtly mirrors one in Roth’s “The Ghost Writer”), a fact that’s emblematic that the movie is almost too knowing for its own good. What remains is a terribly sad life but one seen by that life to be an important one. How good is Philip the writer? The movie deliberately obscures this (his best reviews are from other pretentious snobs), save to reveal that he’s considering naming his latest book after a Guns-N-Roses lyric. We know hearts can change, but you need to have one first.