A portrait of the artist as a shithead

Listen Up Philip stars Jason Schwartzman as an insufferable prick. And it’s so good.


Jess Weixler and Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip

Jason Schwartzman is no stranger to playing self-centered dickheads. In fact, there would likely not be a Jason Schwartzman to be cast as a dickhead if it wasn’t for his debut role as the delusional, arrogant Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Philip Lewis Friedman has some traits in common with Fischer, but the depths of his arrogance and misanthropy make Listen Up Philip an entirely different experience. Alex Ross Perry explores art and the macho idea of the “writerly disposition” (self-centred, arrogant and with a tendency to approach relationships with a scorched-earth policy) in an age where tweed jackets and debut novels hold little of their original luster and accompanying genius with unfettered arrogance is a sign of not much at all.

Philip Friedman is a New York City writer whose second novel is about to be released to general indifference. Having fucked up his chance at a press tour through hubris and pigheadness, he strikes up a friendship with an equally insufferable, blustery literary titan named Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Philip is growing increasingly disillusioned with the city and the way his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) no longer fawns at his every mood swing, so he decides to go live at Ike’s upstate country home to clear his mind. There, he finds Ike’s emotionally-volatile daughter (Krysten Ritter) and the legacy of a man who has spent 50 years thinking the world owes him for his genius.

Although the film is very much of the indie aesthetic (and gorgeously shot on 16mm film), Ross Perry’s taking his biggest cues not from film but rather from literature. The film is narrated by Eric Bogosian with a kind of blowhard literate pomp that soon reveals the narration to be Philip’s own self-absorbed inner monologue, rewriting his own story to underline the constant “impending sense of melancholy” that he feels every 10 minutes. The focus of the film switches expertly between the three protagonists, giving the film the character depth usually reserved for… well… literature. Truth be told, it’s one of the only times in recent memory where voiceover narration actually served the film positively, giving it the feel of an early John Irving novel (before he disappeared up his own asshole).

Philip is no loveable asshole; he’s poisonously selfish, prone to lashing out at anyone who interacts with him with less than fawning adoration and constantly falling into vortexes of self-hatred disguised as superiority. He’s not even an anti-hero — basing an entire film around a guy who’s this much of a prick is nearly suicidal, but it’s a testament to both Schwartzman and Ross Perry’s talent that Philip remains a consistently fascinating protagonist, if not one that you’ll ever grow out of wanting to strangle. Philip seems to think that being a callous, swinging-dick asshole in the Philip Roth or Norman Mailer vein will make everyone acutely aware of his talent, but he’s really just a swoop-haired dickhead in a cardigan.

Almost completely devoid of the quirk and affectations that characterize your average American indie, Listen Up Philip feels timeless and fresh in a way that hearkens back to the classic films of the ’70s. Although its grainy 16mm cinematography and self-consciously retro title cards might point to a throwback, Listen Up Philip is no nostalgia piece. It shows that, even though independent cinema might be increasingly indistinguishable from mainstream studio product, there’s life in it still.

Listen Up Philip is simply one of the best films of the year. ■


Listen Up Philip opens on Oct. 17