“Listen Up Philip” is the third feature from Alex Ross-Perry, the new master of the awkward and uncomfortable cinematic experience. While my only previous experience with Ross-Perry was via 2011’s amazing “The Color Wheel,” having now seen “Listen Up Philip” I think I get where Ross-Perry is coming from pretty well, and I’m completely in. While he’s already being compared to filmmakers like Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson due to his narcissistic, egomaniacal yet pitiful and clueless characters who roam the chic neighborhoods of New York, Ross-Perry goes deeper and reaches farther than these other filmmakers do in terms of the dark truth of these arrogant people and, as a result, manages to obtain more honesty than his colleagues.
“Listen Up Philip” is a clear step in the evolution of Ross-Perry. He has big name actors and his writing and cinematic approach seem much more assured than they did with “The Color Wheel.” Obviously I don’t know if this film was written before that but the screenplay is much more straightforward than its predecessor. Here we meet young writer Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman), who has the unfortunate combination of insecurity mixed with ego. And make no mistake, Philip does have talent as a writer, but his inefficiencies as a human being take center stage here. Eric Bogosian provides omnipresent narration in the film and, within about three minutes, we realize Philip is a complete dick.
I’ve made a few movies in my life and can freely admit that sometimes, in the back of my mind, I want to throw whatever meager success I’ve had back in the face of those who have doubted me or tried to sway me from my dreams. While I always stop short of doing such a thing, Philip does the opposite. Throughout “Listen Up Philip,” his mental inside voice (an insecure, wounded, one-sided one) is unleashed on those around him and the results are obviously prickly, as well as hilarious. While Philip’s novel has indeed been published, he immediately tries to sabotage its release with unfair and unearned demands from his publisher. But soon he meets a famous fellow writer, Ike Zimmerman (Pryce), who hasn’t had a best seller in decades, and the two fall into a comfortable relationship stuffed with ego stroking, aged scotch and a downward spiral into self-absorbed nothingness. “Listen Up Philip” is a nearly two-hour film focusing on an asshole and his asshole friends and I loved it.
Elisabeth Moss plays Philips longtime (and long suffering) girlfriend Ashley and she, along with Zimmerman’s should-be-estranged daughter Melanie (Ritter), are the only real human beings featured in the film. Both women serve to represent the effect megalomaniacs like Zimmerman and Friedman have on those who love them, both presently and in the future. As you might guess, it’s not pretty. But rather than the older Zimmerman looking at his newfound protégé and seeing the error in his ways, he goes the opposite route and feeds the flames, almost wanting to make Philip into himself.
On the opposite side, Philip takes nothing away from the lonely life of solitude Ike leads after chasing away friends and burning bridges. He seems to lust for this life. As such Ross-Perry has created a film full of jerks who just don’t get it. For me, this film was a great, funny and awkward look at the life of an artist. But mileage may vary for those who don’t like seeing people make the same mistakes over and over again no matter how simple the solutions might be.