The cult of literary machismo gets suitably eviscerated in Listen Up Philip, a lacerating drama with satirical overtones from writer/director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel). The film concerns Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), a novelist in his early thirties whose sophomore work, the abstrusely titled Obidant, has just hit bookshelves. Philip seems inspired by equal parts Norman Mailer and Henry Miller; he has their pomposity, their arrogance, their self-righteousness. When we first see Friedman, he's having lunch with his ex-girlfriend Mona (Samantha Jacober) and then meeting a college buddy for coffee. In each conversation, he praises himself relentlessly while trashing the other person. We then get a window into Philip's home life with his current girlfriend, commercial photographer Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss). She put herself at Philip's beck and call years earlier by supporting the struggling young novelist, but now that he can stand on his own two feet, he treats her flippantly. Friedman soon draws the attention of a Philip Roth-like belletrist named Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who takes the young man into his country home as a protégé and friend -- and passes along the finer points of misogyny and elitist pretension. In the process, Philip leaves Ashley behind, foolishly convinced that he can return at any point and reclaim her.
This is a saga as much about words as about personalities; it's about how broken, insecure pseudo-intellectuals use verbiage to shield themselves and wound others. The exchanges are deliberately arch, clever, and laden with reversals, and you have to listen carefully to pick up on all of the ironies. (For example -- Mona: "You sound like you're bragging." Philip: "That's because I am bragging, and you're doing a really hurtful job of sounding unfazed. And do you know why that is? Because you're not pretending.") Those particular lines are key for another reason: They demonstrate Philip's desire to control everyone by attempting to dictate how they feel.
Philip sees the world as one giant novelistic tableau. This explains many of his actions, which in some cases are guided less by innate personal desire than by some perverse need to live out the familiar arcs of classic fiction. That paradigm also accounts for the presence of an off-camera narrator (voice of Eric Bogosian) who paints everything in a literary vein. On the face of it, this is a familiar conceit -- Todd Field's 2006 film Little Children enlisted an identical device to reflect the hypocrisy of self-mythologizing individuals. Here, it works fitfully. It's most resonant when applied to Philip's outlook alone -- demonstrating his tendencies to both emotionally distance himself from the events at hand and reinterpret situations in a twisted way (with himself as the underdog). At one point, for example, the narration tells us: "Philip wished Ashley had not reminded him of how good it felt to be proud of her. His new relationship to success had forced him to grow out of feeling resentful for her accomplishments." The degree of self-delusion that this implies -- given the fact that Philip is still obviously rife with insecurity and resentment of others, including Ashley -- is both shocking and revealing.
However, we could probably do without the instances in which the voice-over probes the feelings of the other people in Philip's sphere, mainly because we can infer what it's telling us sans any underscoring. (It's particularly gratuitous for Ashley, a young woman completely in touch with her own emotions.) And the final passage -- where Bogosian limns Philip's future in detail -- is much too on the nose; Perry has laid out all of the indicators explicitly enough for us to deduce his fate of our own accord.
Still, the excesses of the narration aren't crippling liabilities, and they are more than offset by the movie's many strengths -- especially the ingeniousness of the dialogue and the beautifully conceived subjects. Ashley and Ike's daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) are particularly inspired creations; the rawness of each woman gives the picture its heart and soul, and helps balance the sour aftertaste of many of Philip and Ike's actions. Their presence also enables us to make a key distinction: Philip and Ike may be misanthropic, but the movie itself is not; it sympathizes with the beleaguered women who have wandered into the line of fire of these heels. Moss has one knockout scene that is absolutely critical to the picture's meaning. Perry films her in tight close-up as Ashley deals internally with the ramifications of her split from Philip, and we see the young woman run the emotional gamut in a span of about 20 seconds -- she's heartbroken, but on some level she's elated to be free of the bastard who has taken advantage of her and spit her out.
One of the slyest components of the picture is its structure (hinted at by the movie's posters). The drama has a form reminiscent of classic novels. Although, to Perry's credit, he avoids numbered title cards that announce each character, the vestiges remain: We begin with Philip taking center stage, then segue into an act where Ashley takes the lead, then get a late stretch in the film where Ike is the focal point. And by the end, we have an impressionistic sense of where Philip is headed vis-à-vis Ashley and Ike -- the former defining his bittersweet past, and the latter shaping his financially successful but empty and heartless future.
It's interesting to trace Listen Up's cinematic influences, given how unique it sounds and feels for the early 21st century. Perry's willingness to put ice-cold, misanthropic figures front and center and go for sardonic laughs recalls such late '60s and early '70s black comedies as The Killing of Sister George; Such Good Friends; X, Y and Zee; and Diary of a Mad Housewife. But the predecessor that Philip most resembles, in terms of the stilted rhetoric and the woman-hating bond between Zimmerman and Friedman, is Mike Nichols and Jules Feiffer's Carnal Knowledge. Zimmerman's pathetic and myopic assertions about women could easily be handed to the Jack Nicholson or Art Garfunkel characters in Knowledge sans any modifications. There is also another subtle stylistic hint of an early '70s influence: Perry deliberately uses a title screen reminiscent of Hollywood movies from that era -- "Listen Up Philip" is projected in giant letters, with a tiny "copyright Listen Up Philip, LLC" in the footer.
This is an impressive movie -- not completely flawless, but noteworthy for its magnificent performances and the staggering depth and breadth of its ambition. It's bold, scabrous, often aggressively coarse and off-putting, but that much more welcome for being so. For Perry, still a neophyte director, it signifies a commendable achievement on many levels and announces a major new authorial voice.