Listen Up Philip is about an awful person but it’s not an awful movie
‘Listen Up Philip’ is about a real jerk, but it’s enjoyable to watch this jerk in action.
Ah, the indie “antihero” movie. This is the film with a character who’s not likable, but is probably charismatic in some way, or at least they ought to be. Or at least the director hopes they come across that way. Otherwise, why bother watching an awful person for two hours? You can flip on Captain America instead and watch just a regular old charismatic hero! But the antihero presents a different way to tell a story, one with different stories and themes than you can with a normal heroic protagonist. Instead of rooting for victory, you root for comeuppance. It’s still fun, but a very different sort of experience entirely.
Listen Up Philip comes from writer/director Alex Ross Perry and if you’re thinking this is a classic indie movie about tortured white men geniuses, I’d have to ask if you were reading ahead in the review! Jason Schwartzman stars as the eponymous Philip Friedman, a young author with a fairly successful first novel. As his second novel is being published, Philip begins to grow weary of many things. His relationship with his girlfriend, the successful photographer Ashley, has always been toxic and is only getting worse. Philip hates the idea of promoting his book, much to his publisher’s chagrin, and not only that, but our “hero” can’t deal with the noise and liveliness of New York City. He wants solitude, but he can’t afford it. But he stumbles into some absurd luck: his idol, famed author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) likes his book and wants to meet! Not only that, but Ike offers Philip the chance to stay at his summer estate in the country.
It’s perfect — finally Philip can spend some time alone with his favorite person: himself. He and Ike are like parallel jerks, Ike as the older successful author with a poor relationship with his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter), and Philip as the younger not as successful author who similarly doesn’t care for most people. After that it’s back and forth, seeing Philip’s continued static push forward while staying immature and not really learning anything, but then it’s back sometimes to see how Ashley might be doing a lot better without her terrible boyfriend. So in the end we are left to wonder: Did I just watch a movie about the most arrogant and pretentious guy in NYC meeting his older self? I would say the answer is “sort of”.
The movie is mixed quality to me. There are these amusing narrative asides, but there aren’t enough of them. Stylistically, it gets a bit muddled and I would’ve liked to see some consistency. This is one of those indie “quasi-comedies,” where there are some legitimately funny moments but it’s mostly about the characters and the style. Oh, and the themes. This is all about those that aspire versus what they can actually accomplish, and how even jerks aren’t immune from failing, despite what it might seem like. Sometimes initial success doesn’t imply future victories, it just makes you always resentful of never getting back that glory.
Now I liked Jason Schwartzman in this and I found many of his horrible insults to be amusing in that schadenfreude way, but I don’t think he’s as charming (as a character) as the movie wants him to be. Jonathan Pryce though is effortlessly watchable, with a look of civility hiding smugness and delicious condescension. His great performance elevated the movie. Elisabeth Moss is a talented actress, that is true, but I felt like she wasn’t given much to do here. When she has something, she’s great. And Krysten Ritter shows up her post-Breaking Bad and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 acting chops without being as good as she was in either of those wildly different TV shows. So acting is certainly a draw here, even if the tertiary characters are quite forgettable.
Did the movie drag a bit at times? Sure! But as the movie isn’t even two hours long, it’s paced pretty well. There aren’t really “events” here, just little stories and throughlines. In general, these sorts of indie movies are tricky to recommend, because most people don’t want to see a misanthropic protagonist. But if that’s something that piques your interest, and you’re in the mood for a sort of comedy of awful people dealing with decent ones, you might indeed like this movie.