Alex Ross Perry’s LISTEN UP PHILIP, besides featuring Jason Schwartzman’s best acting job and wrestling remarkable turns from Jonathan Pryce and Elizabeth Moss, performs an act of kindness for its viewers. This tale of an abusive, alienated, successful novelist’s spiral into loneliness lays out, in excruciating detail, the relationship between cause and effect that can govern the shape a human life takes. In showing us, painfully clearly, the results of novelist Philip Lewis Friedman’s poor behavior, both within his own life and in the reactions of those around him, Perry advocates strongly against such behavior, making his film the equivalent of watching a Biblical punishment unfold on film. The critical reception has focused almost entirely on Philip’s meanness, and the entertainment value therein, and not on why such a story might be told. Philip’s behavior is not, in fact, the most interesting part of the film–there is no novelty in the idea of a cruel, clever writer. That story’s been told, many times, and without such a shaky camera. There is, however, a great deal of novelty and originality in holding that cruel clever writer accountable, at length, and in so doing, prodding at viewers’ consciences. The play’s the thing, after all.
This reviewer will confess that it is a great relief to see Schwartzman out from under the thumb of Wes Anderson’s coddling genius. So deft and believable is his performance as Philip that I hated practically every nasty word that came out of his mouth. I disliked his smarmy smile. I found his walk annoyingly stridant. I was aghast that his girlfriend, played with reserve and likable cool by Moss, might find herself, for even one second, happy in his presence–unless her character was, in fact, akin to his. At some points, I hated his chin. When Philip discloses, in an intimate moment, that his parents died when he was young, and describes that as the source of "sadness," I will confess to thinking, "Cry me a river, you stupid, pathetic cliche. Are you even telling the truth?" In any event, what of the story being told here? It’s a simple one. Philip decides, upon the release of his second book, to forgo all tours or publicity, choosing instead to go upstate and lick the boots of Ike Zimmerman, a well-established and successful novelist who is Philip’s elder spiritual doppelganger: blunt, anti-social, manipulative, in search of the perfect quip at all times, vigorously dismissive. And alienated from his daughter, who, while not exactly a charmer herself, has a few beautifully executed moments of pain at Zimmerman’s hands. In so retreating to the country, Philip lands himself an adjunct teaching position–which most holders of such positions would chuckle at, given that it’s a cruel hand dealt upon Philip; such jobs are generally unglamorous, poorly paid, uninsured, and short-lived. As circumstances prove true to that latter characteristic, Philip makes no friends and finds himself bounced from his position, nevertheless managing to charm a French colleague whose initial action upon meeting him was to persuade all of his colleagues to dislike him. Throughout the film’s miserable sojourn, Philip is told off numerous times, by people from various walks of life, including a former college roommate who calls him a "Jew bastard" and a former girlfriend who responds to his request for a kiss by running away. The sad part, but the part which is the root of the film’s charity: Philip has it coming. He is arrogant towards his students in the face of open worship; he treats his agent badly (and is called an "asshole" for it); when he learns that a journalist who was supposed to intervew him committed suicide, he pines that it would have been a great piece for him. These moments of cruelty have some entertainment value, but for anyone who’s known a lot of writers, they’re unremarkable, since most writers know that, from the time of James Joyce onwards, the capacity for cruelty in literary sorts is as bottomless as the River Lethe. What’s remarkable here is what happens. And what is that? Well, Philip happens. In our last sighting of him, we see him walking down a crowded street, carrying a box of his belongings, alone, bereft of his former girfriend, who wouldn’t even open the door for him; the suggestion is that he’s walking towards more of the same. Are these his just desserts? Does he deserve to be this alone, to have all these people shouting at him, to be patronizd by a writer he worships, to be shown such anger by those around him? Yes, he does. If you have to ask why, then perhaos you should watch the movie again.
American culture, it must be understood, generally congratulates selfishness. It’s not typically seen as such, this quality, but it manifests itself that way. Slavish attention to career advancement, fierce competition with others, establishment of political alliances solely for the purpose of said advancement, dismissal of people, things, and ideas lying outside of one’s world view: these actions will, typically, make one successful and content in the world at large. The better car, the better phone, the better TV set, the better shirt, the better face: these things matter. Celebrity homes, celebrity surgeries, celebrity photos, celebrity "selfies," celebrity photo leaks: these things matter as well, perhaps more than we even think. The impact on human behavior of the absorption of these values is insidious. Talking becomes less important; a phone call becomes a rarer and rarer thing; and a handwritten letter? Forget it. The self is all. And if, one day, there’s a shooting in a mall, or a school, we cry mental illness, when in fact what we mean is national illness. It’s doubtful that Perry, in telling this story–and an old-fashioned story it is, with plenty of contrasting motivations, an antagonist, a protagonist, a climax, and a resolution (though perhaps antagonist and protagonist) have switched costumes here–intended it to be a fable, with a clear moral. It’s a character portrait, after all, an experiment as such, to see what happens if, instead of ignoring callousness and accepting it, we hold it up to a "hard Sophoclean light." The experiment, as conducted, performs a valuable service, providing a cutaway, of sorts, into a human psyche in the process of decay, or hardening; the cutaway is explicit, and gory, and eye-opening about the potential rebound effects of cruelty. It could be said that such a cutaway speaks out strongly in favor of kindness, of the opposite of Philip’s behavior. Beyond this, though, in the manner of all good experiments, Listen Up Philip points a way forward: towards different movies about writers, and perhaps different films about people, in which we take a good look at characters’ flaws and virtues, instead of waiting for them to sprout wings or replace their microchips. One might then hope that, as time passes, life might come to imitate art.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.