Listen Up Philip is a film that I wanted to like. The intro sets high hopes: clever, barbed dialogue that recalls the opening of The Social Network, or a snippier Woody Allen movie, and a retro vibe down to the title card font, borrowed from novelist Philip Roth’s 1970s hardcovers. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry, whose previous feature The Color Wheel was an ingenious, black-and-white slice of mumblecore also influenced by Roth’s abrasive ouvre, shoots again on 16 mm, but now in color with yellowed undertones. The indie vet leads, Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss, are grimy and appealing as modern-day Brooklynites.
But paying tribute to Roth and hiring a talented cast, which includes Jonathan Pryce as an aging author and Krysten Ritter as the daughter he ignores, does not a great movie make. On the contrary, it plays more like a short film run long, with superfluous details getting in the way of a strong message that deserves a cleaner, more focused delivery.
Schwartzman plays Philip, a self-centered asshole in personal crisis after the publication of his second novel. Of course, the crisis is purely of his own invention. He refuses to do publicity for the book, vexing his literary agent (Daniel London), and he belittles his live-in girlfriend, Ashley (Moss), even though she is a successful photographer with the vibrance and independence to suggest that she will be just fine without him. He takes a shy, young woman to a bar, and when she tries to kiss him, he refuses — not because he has a girlfriend, but because he thinks it is “gauche” to kiss in public.
All of this should make Philip unlikable, and it does, to an extent. That I don’t hate Philip is a testament to Schwartzman’s gift of earnestness, even and especially when he’s being terrible. Philip may be cruel, but he’s not disingenuous. He’s not being sarcastic either. He just says exactly what he is thinking, without regard to tact or consequence.
Sometimes Philip’s statements invoke empathy, like when he confronts a fellow writing professor (Joséphine de La Baume) about turning the college staff against him and says, “Nobody likes me here, and I’m alone.” But most of the time he’s just being a jerk, like when he tells Ashley that he will be moving into the cottage home of fading literary giant Ike Zimmerman (Pryce) for the foreseeable future: “I hope this will be good for us, but especially for me.” Lines like these get laughs because they are so outrageous, yet delivered without a hint of irony.
Perhaps we’ve had time to warm up to Schwartzman’s signature straight-faced comedy, as his characters in Rushmore, Shopgirl, and The Darjeeling Limited are just as frank, if not as smug, as the Guy in Your MFA douchebag that he plays here. Still, when Philip dismisses a student’s request for a recommendation letter with “Here’s a piece of paper with some staples in it,” it’s hard not to chuckle at his audacity.
Philip’s one-liners are the most entertaining aspect of the film, and a tear-filled confession from Moss the most affecting, but that’s not saying much. The backstory between Ike and Melanie (Ritter) is clunky and ends on a weirdly unfinished note. Lengthy omniscient narration from Eric Bogosian and repeated use of extreme closeups, though curious devices, are more distracting than they are helpful. Ashley is the only character with a real arc, and the women, Ashley, Melanie, and Yvette (de La Baume), are the only ones who seem to give a damn about anything. Philip and Ike, by contrast, exist in a detached state of whatever: floating about aimlessly, learning nothing. A scene in which Ike regrets not being able to bang chicks like he used to is depressing as hell, but only because this confession is supposed to make us care about him more, when it actually does the opposite.
The lack of comma in Listen Up Philip is intentional. Philip is not asked to listen to what others have to say and not moved into becoming a better person, so he doesn’t. But while Philip not changing is supposed to be the point — we presume he is going to end up like old Ike, bitter and alone — doesn’t that make the whole experience of watching him, well, pointless? The film’s scarce glimpses of humanity should add up to more, but ultimately, Listen Up Philip leaves us wondering why we bothered to care.