“Listen Up Philip” is now playing at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:49, three stars out of four. I’ll be hosting a post-show chat after the 7:05 p.m. show on Tuesday, Oct. 28 at Sundance Cinemas.
You know those movies about an abrasive curmudgeon who, in the end, redeems himself and becomes a caring person? “Listen Up Philip” is emphatically not one of those movies.
Fiction writer Philip (Jason Schwartzman) starts out incredibly annoying and pretty much stays that way throughout the running time of Alex Ross Perry’s acerbic comedy. Watching it, I was reminded of that line from “Le Week-End” where the husband insists to his wife that flawed people can change. “They do change,” she responds. “They get WORSE.”
“I’m not successful, I’m notable,” Philip says about his writing career. “There’s a difference. I’m not even notable. I’m noteworthy.” This line captures both Philip’s acidic view of his world and the unflinching genius of Perry’s script. Philip always seems like he’s going to pull up at the last minute from saying something truly irredeemable, and then plunges right in.
His second novel is about to be published, but he’s not happy. When his publisher says he’ll be part of the New Yorker’s “35 Writers under 35” issue, he insists that nobody reads that anymore. He refuses to do any press for the book. When offered the chance to make money as a professor at a liberal arts college, he takes the job, and hates every minute of it. Success for him is just another set of things to complain about, always painting himself as the victim.
And then there’s the women, an unending string of well-meaning girlfriends who he makes miserable through his own passive-aggressive behavior. Chief among them is photographer Ashley (a fantastic Elisabeth Moss), who has supported him for years and is rewarded with scorn and disinterest now that Philip is becoming notable. There’s two arcs at play here — Philip’s downward turn into complete narcissism, and Ashley’s dawning realization that this relationship is destroying her.
The third major character in the film is Ike (Jonathan Pryce), a famous writer in the Philip Roth mold who takes on Philip as a sort of protege. Ike is just as bitter and misogynistic as Philip– he’s just had more years to practice it. He’s also the only person in the film Philip is nice to, which awakens even more bitterness in Ike. Even when Philip is good to people, he ends up hurting them.
Schwartzman and the other actors seem to relish Perry’s precise, devastating dialogue, and Perry keeps the camera in claustrophobic tight, flipping from action to reaction and back again, everything bathed in a deceptively lovely golden light of autumn in New York. “Listen Up Philip” is a lot of time spent with some very unlikable people, but the fact that they’re unlikable doesn’t make them uninteresting, or not compelling to watch.