There’s a moment very early on in Listen Up Philip that indicates the value of Alex Ross Perry’s direction and writing. Philip (Jason Schwartzman), a successful novelist, denies one of his exes the ‘gift’ of seeing his newly-published sophomore effort because she was late for their meeting. When he eviscerates her and storms out of the diner, she and the cook share a knowing, sister-to-sister glance. Thus, Perry’s thesis is born: the strikingly narcissistic Philip is at once entertaining and acidic, but because of his selfishness, the women in his life will always be one step ahead of him.
In a callback to Philip Roth, Perry has created a singularly tart comedy with an equally searing likability factor. This is due partly to the film’s construction. Philip’s girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) finally allows herself to fall out of love with him just as he starts to become disillusioned with one of his literary idols. Schwartzman’s penchant for delivering Perry’s biting dialogue with unique and bittersweet flare helps us acclimate to Philip’s narcissism right off the bat. He takes a writer’s retreat at the second home of Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an older author with a legacy Philip respects almost more than anything else. This vacation becomes a second life for Philip, whom Ike recommends for a position at a nearby university. The absence of Philip in Ashley’s life makes her question everything she once loved about him, even the charm of his boyish, careerist attitude. Moss shines in the role of Ashley, taking full advantage of a twenty-minute stretch of celluloid all about her. The movie sings in this segment, but even in the preceding and following minor notes, it’s an unforgettable character study.
Listen Up Philip is as multi-dimensional and polished as anything I’ve seen this year. Not only that, but it’s easily the funniest movie for adults I’ve seen in a few years. Philip struggles to connect with people because, as he says, he would rather be remembered as a famous author than as a real person. The movie almost becomes a nega-Forrest Gump as it unfolds, showing how he throws a wrench into the lives of everyone he meets, including Ike and his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter). But it also takes us deep into his good side when he meets fellow English professor Yvette (Joséphine de La Baume), who, after leading a workplace campaign against him, genuinely falls for him.
I would be remiss not to mention that one of the film’s best qualities is its even-handedness, even when it plays around with linear storytelling. For this I have to credit the fourteen-year dynamic duo of cinematographer Sean Price Williams and editor Robert Greene.