Listen Up Philip is a film that plays like a book, which is usually not a good thing. Books and movies have different durations and rhythms, and it's tricky to beat-match them properly. But in the hands of talented young writer-director Alex Ross Perry, this smart, wicked indie succeeds as a daring storytelling hybrid.
Jason Schwartzman, always so quirky and likeable in Wes Anderson's movies, goes full-tilt asshole here, playing the miserable and self-obsessed novelist Philip Friedman. Philip lives in New York City with his girlfriend of three years, Ashley, played by Elisabeth Moss. The third central character is Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an aging novelist whose glory days are behind him, and who sees in young Philip a source of new energy and adulation.
There's a fourth main character, but he's never onscreen. The Narrator (Eric Bogosian) is a constant presence, stitching together scenes with lengthy voiceovers that are written to evoke the language of a novel. His monologues aren't descriptive, they're declarative, telling us what's happening in the internal worlds of the characters.
That's usually slow death in movies, but it works here because the Narrator isn't the only one talking in elegant, calibrated paragraphs. Philip and Ike do, too. When Ike invites his young admirer to spend the summer at his rural writing retreat, Philip replies: "I know most people expect surprising and generous offers to be politely refused, but I'm going to have to call your bluff and emphatically accept."
Who talks like that? Novelists do, at least in this film, and the dialogue is a master class on how words can be deployed to obscure, distract, manipulate and wound. Philip and Ike both wield language like a weapon, coldly lacerating the people that care about them and preventing anyone—especially women—from getting too close. When Philip departs the city for Ike's country home, Ashley is devastated at being left behind. Philip's casual cruelty is astonishing. "I'm doing what's best for me," he tells her. That's pretty much Philip's entire philosophy right there.
Out in the country, Philip has a few interludes with other women, including Melanie (Krysten Ritter), Ike's adult daughter. Melanie knows all about self-absorbed writer types, and she instantly pegs Philip as the junior version of her dad. "I'm glad he's found a younger surrogate to handle all the four-alarm moping," she says. Philip also worms his way into a relationship with Yvette (Joséphine de la Baume), a French literature teacher at the local college.
Philip and Ike are both truly miserable people, and though I admired the acting of Schwartzman and Pryce, I didn't much like spending time with either of them. Their scenes are engaging but not very pleasant. Happily, the middle section of the film belongs to Moss, who tends to be the most interesting part of anything she's in. There's a moment, after a confrontation with Philip, when the camera stays on Moss for a good 30 seconds as an entire story of pain moves silently across her face. It's that impossible thing that only great screen actors can do.
Listen Up Philip is a satisfying and visually interesting film. Shot in grainy 16mm, it has a 1970s look that's reflected in the art design. And it finishes on an interesting note. Philip and Ike keep wallowing in despair and self-sabotage. But the women—Ashley, Melanie and Yvette—have gone on with their lives, which will certainly be much happier with these exhausting men out of the picture.
This article appeared in print with the headline "War of the proses."