Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), an ascendant young novelist, is a furious collection of bad traits. The protagonist of writer and director Alex Ross Perry’s third feature, the very funny “Listen Up Philip,” is dismissive toward (and jealous of) his photographer girlfriend, Ashley Kane (Elizabeth Moss), arrogant, critical, rude, selfish, angry and impatient (particularly enraged by slow foot traffic in New York, with which I totally–and sheepishly–identify).
His jangly physicality is emphasized by DP Sean Price Williams’ handheld photography and claustrophobic tight shots. I’m not often drawn to Schwartzman’s performances but here his natural sweetness cuts through Philip’s bilious demeanor just enough to make the character not only watchable but riveting. And I rarely have patience for prolonged voice-over but the well-written paragraphs, as delivered by narrator Eric Bogosian, fit and enhance the literary atmosphere.
Meeting with his editor shortly before the publication date of his second novel, Philip, although highly ambitious, indulges in a bit of self-sabotage and declares that he won’t be available to do press. He does, however, express interest in meeting a famous older writer, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce)–think Philip Roth–who has sent him a laudatory letter.
Philip and Zimmerman are two versions of the same raging artist id–Melanie (Krysten Ritter), the latter’s mistreated daughter calls Philip “a younger surrogate to handle the forlorn moping”–and the men become friends and confidants. Zimmerman’s offer to let Philip use his secluded upstate New York retreat for the summer, as a place to write without distractions, is readily accepted. Ashley’s sadness at being easily abandoned registers with Philip as an irritant.
Zimmerman arranges for Philip to teach creative writing for the fall semester at a nearby liberal arts college. He dislikes teaching, the students and other faculty members (including Yvette, a lovely French writer with whom he has an unsuccessful romance ) and returns to the apartment he shared with Ashley in Brooklyn, hoping to resume their relationship. She throws him out and the sustained close-up on her face, as she experiences sadness, relief and strength, is beautiful and moving.
The men stay mired in their muck of self-absorption and self-regard and bitterness. And for Philip, add a lack of self-awareness (“forever remaining a mystery, even to himself”). The three women absorb the body blows, shake free of the pain, and move on.
At the 52nd New York Film Festival’s press conference for “Listen Up Philip,” Perry cited both Maurice Pialat’s “We Won’t Grown Old Together,” a brutal dissection of a crumbling relationship, and Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives” as influences. Asked if Philip is his alter ego, Perry said that while he shared “small similarities” with Philip he also identified with Ashley, adding that Philip Roth’s influence was 100%.
Alex Ross Perry–and Sean Price Williams–famously worked at Kim’s Video. During our shoot, I told Alex that when I photographed director Craig Zobel (“Compliance”), he said that he was very happy to have made his third feature because that was the number required to get a dedicated section at Kim’s. Alex, the insider, replied, “We could give someone their own section if they’d made fewer films, if we wanted to.”
“Listen Up Philip” will open Friday, October 17 at the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Alex Ross Perry and Jason Schwartzman will attend select shows on October 17 and October 18. A national release will follow.