There have been several films over the past few years that have sought to engage with the subject of creativity and the pursuit of artistic success. Few have been quite so razor-sharp as Alex Ross Perry’s acerbic third feature, Listen Up Philip (2014), which skewers the misanthropic pretensions of a ‘notable’ young New York novelist. With pitch perfect performances, and a script that seems to never miss a beat it is a scabrous satire of writerly narcissism in a vintage 16mm world dominated by dislikable characters who are never less than compelling. “You’re a man of contradictions,” Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is told. “No I’m not,” he fires back with a quick-witted snipe.
Throughout a staccato opening, he is drawn in a series of lacerating conversations – with an ex-girlfriend, college roommate, publisher and current girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss, best known as Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen) – between gobbets of scene and character-building narration (Eric Bogosian). All of those relationships are on the skids, or already over. Philip flat out refuses to do a promotional tour for his second novel – obviously Obidant will speak for itself – but takes up the offer from idol, Ike Zimmerman (a fabulous Jonathan Pryce) to summer at his country home, leaving Ashley to stew alone in the Big Apple. Philip is painstakingly well-drawn by Perry and Schwartzman.
Despite his escalating despicability, Philip’s destructive self-absorption is fascinating to behold. Fortunately, he’s also brilliantly supported by the ageing, Rothian Ike and the film’s emotional epicentre, Ashley. For a spell, the film abandons Philip (phew) and traces his partner as she struggles to exorcise him – a small mercy that you desperately pray for. It’s a risky gambit that does interrupt the narrative pacing, but balances out by providing a subject of much-needed emotional affinity. Sean Price Williams’ retro aesthetic and Keegan DeWitt’s jazz score complement the actions sprawling nature, harking back to Woody Allen’s heyday. Elsewhere the verbose narration echoes the protagonist’s literary pomposity and fills in for his emotional vacuity, while framing proceedings with the irony that colours every frame. “I’m self-deprecating” a rival novelist informs Philip at one point – a brand value, however affected, that he can’t comprehend. The ultimate gag of Listen Up Philip is that he never will. Fortunately, audiences can revel in the caustic humour while he doesn’t.
This review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2014 London Film Festival.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson