Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip portrays the New York creative scene not as a place filled with intellectual, if rudderless, thinkers and dreamers but as a vipers’ pit of backstabbing careerists. These are the sort of people who would sacrifice every personal relationship they have just to get a short story in The New Yorker, much less become a respected author. Its vision is as nihilistic as that of Taxi Driver, only now New York’s murderous impulses and unbalanced denizens operate in networking mixers and quaint upstate trips, any pleasantry reluctantly given and transparently a means to an end.
Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is such a product of this setting that we meet him celebrating the release of his second novel by inviting personal and professional enemies out for drinks so he can viciously belittle them for their failure to believe in his talent. Sales and wider recognition seem to be lesser goals for Philip, who sabotages promotional tours and even puff-piece interviews to boost his profile. Living such a myopic life in Brooklyn’s art circles, he will settle for the admiration, or better yet, envy, of the nominal friends and peers with whom he comes into contact.
Schwartzman often plays this kind of officious, pedantic blowhard, but Philip takes the type to its most perilous extreme. Every exchange is barbed. Speaking with a pretty young woman who clearly shows interest in him, Philip bitterly hits back at her awkward come-on with, “If you were a groupie, you’d likely have read both of my books.” He fails to recognize the increasing antipathy his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) feels for him, or at the very least he affords it no second thought as he continues to rely upon her emotional and financial support. Philip knows full well how insufferable he is, deliberately alienating people to preserve his self-image as a serious, uncompromising artist. Sean Price Williams’s 16mm cinematography regularly captures Philip in close-ups that are bracing in both their direct gaze and ornate flourishes. The use of golden lighting and perfect blocking cinematically frame Philip with the same old-school prestige that he pulls from literary forebears. From a certain point of view, even the omniscient, third-person narration (provided by Eric Bogosian), which touches upon the inner thoughts of Philip and other characters, could be said to be an outgrowth of Philip’s minutely crafted self-image.
But in the realm of willful combativeness, Philip pales in comparison to his idol, the Philip Roth-like Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a renowned author who invites Philip to stay in his upstate country home. Ike delivers master classes in venom, lacing every compliment he affords to Philip’s writing with an insult about how many more prizes he’d won by Philip’s age, or how embarrassed he would be to write at Philip’s slow pace. In one of the film’s most darkly funny scenes, Ike even breaks out 25-year-old scotch for himself and an old friend while pouring 10-year-old stuff for Philip in an evaluative gesture. Perry and Williams shoot Ike as if he were Mephistopheles, his thinned, unkempt hair jutting up in vague horns with reddish-yellow light casting his three-quarter profiles in demonic tones. Ike greatly aids Philip’s career, but the price of his generosity is his fan’s total devotion. Ike is a literary god, but a god dies if it has no believers. In an age when literature no longer plays a significant role in mainstream culture, Ike will siphon the enthusiasm of one of his last young worshippers as lifeblood.
Indie film is often portrayed, by filmmakers and critics alike, as a chance to see “real people,” never mind that the real people in question are so often white Brooklynites whose primary setback in life is not being a superstar by age 25. Listen Up Philip foregrounds the narrow range of such expressions. Its protagonist is a thoroughly stylized creation, and a reflection of indie’s worst clichés: preciously existing outside of technology, ignoring everything outside a solipsistic sphere of experience, even pointing out the clichés he embodies without adjusting his behavior to avoid them. Philip himself is aestheticized, and Williams’s cinematography and Robert Greene’s editing flesh out his comic beats and self-awareness, reveling in his point of view before stepping outside of it to make his grotesque nature even clearer.
Above all, the film is written, not stitched together from loose outlines but carefully directed by Perry’s copious gifts for dialogue and structure. Throwaway lines are scabrous and multivalent, like Philip trying on the aforementioned woman’s oversized, stereotypically hipster glasses and remarking, “We have the same affectation,” or responding to the news of a rival’s suicide with the breathtakingly self-centered, “I mean, I’m glad he’s dead and all, but that interview would’ve been a great opportunity for me.” People have forgotten that well-crafted dialogue almost always sounds more natural to a film than wheel-spinning improvisation, and good scripting has the power to be unpredictable.
Consider the most impressive segment of the film, which focuses on Ashley after Philip heads to his retreat with Ike. The insular, male world shown throughout the rest of the film regularly displays spikes of misogyny, from Philip’s publisher making nervous references to a woman critic who negatively reviews Philip’s book to Ike’s declamations against all women, even his outwardly hostile treatment of his own daughter (Krysten Ritter, whose initial show of insouciance gives way to frightening vulnerability from years of neglect). Normally, Ashley would be portrayed as either a victim of Philip’s arrogance or a moral beacon, but neither the script nor Moss pigeonhole her that way. Taking Philip’s departure as the end of their relationship, Ashley comes alive, free of dead weight she seemingly just noticed she was carrying. The best of the film’s numerous close-ups belongs to her when she definitively casts Philip out, her face a play of numerous emotions that in a few seconds obliterates Philip’s façade of manly rationality. It’s one of the many moments in which the film bucks expectation. Of the increasing number of truly revelatory movies breaking out of the indie scene, Listen Up Philip may be its first outright masterpiece.