Senses of humor vary widely. Mine is decidedly offbeat, and I don’t often see comedies that match it perfectly. I remember with the satisfaction of hindsight being the only person in a theater laughing at The Big Lebowski, which of course later became a cult classic. I’m saying all this to prepare you for my rave review of what others might consider a difficult film. It’s called Listen Up Philip, written and directed by a brilliant young talent named Alex Ross Perry.
Jason Schwartzman plays Philip Lewis Friedman, an ambitious New York City writer who has just published his second novel. Philip is brilliant, and also incredibly arrogant and narcissistic. We meet him as he brutally tells off an ex-girlfriend for never properly supporting his talent. While he’s on a roll, he berates another old friend in the next scene for not succeeding together with him as they had planned in school. Philip, in other words, is an awful person, and Schwartzman manages to make these scenes believable and, with an air of totally smug self-assurance, hilarious.
Philip does seem to get along with his current live-in girlfriend Ashley, played by Elisabeth Moss, but this impression is short-lived. Through his agent, Philip learns that a famous older novelist, Ike Zimmerman, admires his work and is interested in meeting him. Zimmerman, played to perfection by Jonathan Pryce, is a parody of the kind of veteran writer who has achieved the status of a living classic by putting his muse ahead of any other normal human considerations, leaving a trail of wreckage in his wake. He likes Philip, who seems like a younger version of himself, and invites him to his country home to work away from the noise and distraction of the city. Philip promptly agrees, and without any consideration for Ashley, moves in with Ike for the summer.
In a film that satirizes literary conceits, Perry playfully toys with the story’s narrative flow. We leave Philip for quite a while, and the movie is now all about Ashley—her anger and grief about Philip’s treatment of her, and her gradual coming to a healthier sense of herself. Here Elisabeth Moss really shows how outstanding an actress she is, bringing real emotional authenticity into a film that has until then has been about the lack of it. In one amazing scene a multitude of intense and conflicting emotions resolve themselves just in her momentary facial expressions, without any words. Later the film shifts to being about Ike Zimmerman; his loneliness and his self-destructive desire to control others with his ego. Then eventually we shift back to Philip.
A recurring device in the film is a voice-over narration by Eric Bogosian, over-explaining everything psychologically, mirroring the distancing intellectual approach of a writer like Philip, telling everything in emphatic detail rather than showing. I found the intrusions of this narrator into the film to be one of its funniest and most successful elements.
The story of a writer who alienates himself from everyone with a secretly self-loathing will to succeed at all costs would normally be a tragedy, or at least a melodrama. But Perry’s reflexive narrative strategies turn it into the wryest of jokes, a stinging satire of intellectual pretensions that manages to be funny and sad in the very same moment. It’s kind of a high wire act. The humor doesn’t pull far enough away to make things seem cartoonish, but the pain depicted isn’t allowed to take itself very seriously either. I loved the brazen anti-romantic comedy attitude of Listen Up Philip so much that I want to see it again. But I told you I’m offbeat.