Near the end of Listen Up Philip, the audacious third feature from Alex Ross Perry, narcissistic author Philip (Jason Schwartzman) attempts to rekindle some sympathy from his ex-girlfriend, Ashley (Elizabeth Moss). Perry shoots the sequence with a door framed between them as Ashley explains how she has finally cut him entirely out of her life. But instead of hearing this explanation directly from Ashley, we instead hear it relayed through the film’s omniscient voiceover narrator (Eric Bogosian). Despite the prevalence of close-ups, this narration device effectively pushes us away, cutting off any chance of identifying with Philip. We may understand why Philip has been rejected, but as Perry’s technique suggests, he never will. Listen Up Philip is brimming with such unconventional narrative and filmic strategies, where it introduces familiar set-ups between characters and slowly veers toward a darker moral abyss, an emotional universe of ecstatic desolation.
The fact that Perry has crafted something wholly original from seemingly familiar elements should be no surprise in light of his previous two features, Impolex and The Color Wheel. Both films contain structural gambits where the bizarre and comic flows of the narrative are suddenly interrupted by monologues (both delivered in long takes) that are both a natural extension of the plot while also throwing all that occurred in a new light. Listen Up Philip follows suit in a slightly different way, using broad strokes to engage us in humorous situations before dropping out the laughs and allowing something more insightful (and often painful) to emerge. Perry shares something of a kinship here with Paul Thomas Anderson, both filmmakers uncovering harsher psychological truths behind distinctly American myths — Perry’s target inPhilip is The Great American Novelist. It’s one thing to call Philip a narcissist; it’s another to peer perilously close to the edge and investigate how a character’s narcissism impacts the entire scope of his world.
Perry is a very literary director, though not one interested in straight adaptation. Impolex riffs on a passage of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow by funneling images of Americana through a postwar context, while The Color Wheel finds a wholly cinematic analogue for one of Philip Roth’s elongated conversational passages. Perry encroaches upon Roth territory once again in Listen Up Philip (right down to using the same typeface seen on the front cover of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint) by investigating a rather unpleasant Jewish male: When we first encounter Philip, he is “notable but not successful,” having two well-regarded books under his arm, spending the first day of the narrative berating former friends about their own failures while reveling in his success against them.
Actually, “reveling” isn’t quite accurate, because as Schwartzman plays Philip, the character seems completely allergic to any sort of pleasure. His impetus to follow his literary idol, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), and completely abandon both Ashley and Brooklyn feels more like personal suicide than a search for a true calling. Appropriately, Perry shoots Schwartzman with uncomfortable wide-angle lenses in his close-ups, literally distinguishing him from the rest of the world. When appearing in two shots, he’s often the shorter person in the frame, fighting his way to take control of the space.
The fact that Perry has crafted something wholly original from seemingly familiar elements should be no surprise in light of his previous two features.
Listen Up Philip could have been an effective-enough film if it had straightforwardly told the story of a narcissist who realizes the depths of his own ego (see: Rushmore, which Perry quotes here). But in one of Perry’s most ambitious narrative ellipses, the break-up between Philip and Ashley leads to a long interlude in which we abandon the protagonist and instead follow Ashley through her own attempts to build a life without Philip: a flirtatious night out (including a key flashback that features one of the few static long takes), a vacation to a sister, a delightfully cranky cat. Far from being merely a gratuitous interjection, this narrative detour wraps back to Philip’s pathetic attempt to come back to her: By giving the film over to Ashley (and, by extension, Moss’s performance, which carefully traces a path from emotional instability to a more grounded state), we suddenly find ourselves empathizing with her when she rather cruelly chides her former lover.
Such narrative deviations are key to Perry’s cinematic approach to exploring Roth’s trademark search for the unknowable self: by exploring the objective world outside of his protagonist. After following Ashley, the film leads into other narratives — Zimmerman and his egotistical loneliness, the idol’s frustrated daughter (Krysten Ritter), a fellow rival turned lover (Joséphine de La Baume) — before turning back to the frustrated writer. As with Ashley, we see this parade of women not just in terms of the male protagonists, but as individuals with their own emotional independence, all with their own ways of reacting to Philip. That the film is ultimately exploring a masculine malaise does not necessarily exclude the possibility of finding insight to the lives of women affected by Philip and Zimmerman’s emotional abuse. (Zimmerman’s first hit novel is titled Madness & Women, after all).
Between the overlapping dialogue, the swerving handheld camerawork, and the frantic zooms, Listen Up Philip’s stylistic chaos can feel nauseating. But like the work of John Cassavetes, the overwhelming surface masks an intensely structured rhythm. Perry doesn’t shoot conversations; he shoots intrusions. The deliberately choppy editing (by Robert Greene — who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend) keeps the characters isolated from each other even as they collide emotionally. Sequences move so quickly that the specificity of gestures often feels fleeting, almost unnoticed by the camera — yet somehow, the totality of the emotion still registers. In spite of the spatial disorientation this causes, Perry and Greene milk this for visual humor: an amusing jump cut after Philip asks an ex-girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil) to kiss him, or a two-person dinner sequence that suddenly turns out to contain three people.
Perhaps the film’s most important stylistic trait, however, is the way that chaotic surface clashes with the film’s comparably placid mise-en-scène. As shot by Sean Price Williams on Super-16mm, the colors are slightly saturated and over-exposed, giving the film an autumnal out-of-time feel: Without cell phones or computers in sight, Listen Up Philip echoes an older, mythic New York. These cinematographic pleasantries belie the bitterness of the emotions on-screen.
That collision right there encapsulates the writer/director’s most calculated gambit. Perry is a cynical sentimentalist, someone who can’t help but use the camera to pull our heartstrings at the most profoundly dark places. Philip rages against the clichés of his time in search of honesty, only to embrace a different set of clichés — a failure that is simply human. For all the brazen hilarity, the brilliance of Listen Up Philiplies in the way that the film leaves us with a genuinely powerful emotional gut punch once the laughter finally subsides.
True to his detached yet empathetic form, Perry gives Bogosian’s voiceover narrator the film’s final, devastating judgment, buttressed by a gentle white light that shines on the protagonist’s face as he walks in the cold blue world. This concluding moment recalls the ending of Roth’s The Human Stain and offers a fitting projection into Philip’s future: “Only rarely, at the end of the century, does life offer up a vision as pure and peaceful as this one: a solitary man on a bucket, fishing through eighteen inches of ice in a lake that’s constantly turning over its water atop an arcadian mountain in America.” It’s a paradise, perhaps, but an isolated, self-delusional one.