Listen Up Philip opens with a bombastic bang. Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), the belligerent writer at the center of Alex Ross Perry’s third feature film and first cinematic novel, arrives at a Brooklyn bodega to meet his ex-girlfriend, Mona, for lunch. She’s late—insultingly late by Philip’s impossibly high standards—and by the time she’s languorously strolled up to the counter Philip has worked himself into a rage.
Nostrils flared, shoulders hunched, those unmistakable caterpillar eyebrows twitching, if Schwartzman’s body language doesn’t convey the extent of Philip’s agitation, the omniscient narrator (voiced by a suitably detached Eric Bogosian) makes it clear that for a man as deeply self-involved as Philip, Mona’s tardiness simply cannot be chalked up to human fallibility. Her inability to arrive on time is symbolic, rather, of the fact that she never supported his literary dreams and is fundamentally wrong about basically everything. Philip doesn’t hesitate to tell her as much, launching into an unfiltered diatribe that leaves him winded. “So you don’t get this gift from me,” he concludes spitefully, referring to the advanced copy of his second novel he’s already inscribed specifically for her.
“That line had a lot in it for me” says Jason Schwartzman, whose welcoming, laid back demeanor stands in stark contrast to his cantankerous alter-ego. “That’s the way [Philip] thinks; that small act means a lot to him.” It’s the first in a series of small acts, which put together constitute Philip’s “scorched earth” campaign, as one of the characters in the films puts it. Total isolation, it seems, is the masochistic goal from the start.
“Being disconnected is like a drug he’s playing with at the beginning,” the actor adds. “Like, ‘I’m going to try letting this person have it, and not let them affect me’ and before you know it he’s a drug addict. By the end of the movie, his first instinct is to be that way.” With a central character that’s as petty, pedantic, and acutely prone to jealousy as Philip is, the film risks pushing its audience away and yet one can’t help getting drawn into the warped universe he inhabits.
Sitting down to probe the depths of his own work, writer-director Alex Ross Perry, who manages to talk slightly faster than he thinks (very fast) and resembles a taller, lankier version of his protagonist, attributes much of the movie’s appeal to “The Jason Factor.” He’s right: “Likeable” may be the type of non-descript adjective that would be circled violently in red if used in an undergraduate paper, but Schwartzman is just one of those guys—with one of those faces—that’s so damn likeable.
“Jason was dream casting from the very beginning,” says Perry, “We thought: if we can get this guy to do the movie, then Philip will be what we need him to be and people will be able to watch his behavior and think, ‘Wow, that guy is kind of a piece of shit, but I get it. I see why these girls like him.’”
Philip is talented, funny, and whether he likes it or not, he has a magnetic charisma that draws people in—even if it’s only so that he can shove them away. “Philip is the exact right mix of vulnerable, confident, [and] self-doubting.” Perry adds, “half of these things were in the script and the other half Jason brought. Without him the movie never would have worked because the nucleus never would have connected.”
Schwartzman himself was put off by the character at first: “I picked up [the script] and I read it and I was about thirty pages in and I was just thinking man, this guy is really abrasive, I don’t feel good reading this. So I put it down and I played around with my family and lived the rest of my day. That night I remember thinking ‘I wonder what’s happening right now with Philip?’ It was an uncomfortable feeling but one that also kept me wanting a little bit more.”
The actor’s description is not entirely dissimilar to the experience of watching the film: a perversely potent mix of Schadenfreude and genuine compassion. Schwartzman, of course, shouldn’t be given all the credit. Perry’s script pulls off a nearly impossible tonal balance, alternating between cringe-worthy and caustic humor that makes its underlying ache of melancholy all the more disarming.
Much of the pathos is generated by those who find themselves left in the wake of Philip’s emotional destruction—first and foremost, his girlfriend Ashley (the always-excellent Elizabeth Moss). Her lucrative career as a commercial photographer rousing more envy in Philip than it does pride, when presented with the opportunity to stay in the country with his literary hero, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), Philip doesn’t hesitate to act in service of his insatiable ego and abandon Ashley for the summer. “I hope this will be good for us, but especially good for me,” he tells her, coldly.
“That was a line when I read the script that I was like, ugh!” says Schwartzman. “I just wanted to apologize to everybody all the time. Elizabeth Moss is the nicest human being. I would act with her and she would start crying—and it wouldn’t be scripted that she’d cry sometimes—she would just start fucking crying! I felt terrible.”
It’s in these moments when Moss, the camera tight on her face, combats a subtle stream of tears with a determinedly stiff upper lip that the film is at its most affecting, and one of the wisest narrative moves Perry makes is to explore Philip’s character through his absence. Borrowing the device from William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions, in which the main character disappears for a good 700 pages, instead of following Philip when he leaves for the American pastoral, Perry remains closely in Ashley’s company. “I feel him weighing on me more heavily now that he’s gone than I did when he was around,” she confides in a co-worker one day.
It’s a feeling the audience is made to share: “Philip is a force of nature blowing through life” Perry comments, “what happens to people when [someone like that] leaves? …It’s like in the movie where a cop pulls up to someone and says: ‘gimme your car!’ What happens to that guy? What is the rest of that guy’s day like? Listen Up Philip is kind of version of that. I wanted to make sure to spend time with these other people, because nothing ever happens to just one person.”
The gutsy (and decidedly literary) structure was further solidified by Perry’s personal experience on the festival circuit with his previous film, The Color Wheel (2011). “I was beginning to experience something resembling success for the first time in my life,” Perry explains, “I started to feel like [I was] becoming a phantom in people’s lives…[and that] was really sad.”
Listen Up Philip may be a film about an up-and-coming writer, but it is less an exploration of the creative process than it is a study of the perilous pleasures of success. “Success is interesting” Perry observes, “because one’s relationship with success is entirely dependent on other people. Philip’s success means nothing to some people in the film [like Mona] and that upsets him greatly. And his success [being recognized] by a hero of his like Ike makes Philip feel good about himself.”
The dynamic that develops between Ike and Philip is at once symbiotic and parasitic: Ike feeds off Philip’s unconditional admiration (and his youth, when it suits him), while Philip’s very existence is validated simply by basking in Ike’s presence (even in the face of the backhanded compliments Ike constantly dishes out). “My inspiration for the Ike relationship,” Perry says, “is where you turn a corner and filmmakers whose movies I had on my Employee Pick shelf [at Kim’s Video, where Perry used to work] email me when they’re in town. What does that feel like? It feels insane, it feels surreal.” The Ike character, for Perry, is not so much based on “a guy who I respected who [necessarily] helped me; he’s a guy who, the fact that he calls me by my first name, is life changing.”
Inspired by the literary giants of yore, specifically Philip Roth (the film lifts its loopy title font from Roth’s book covers), Ike represents precisely the life of letters Philip has always dreamed of—namely one that existed in the past—and the extent to which he romanticizes Ike’s existence is underscored by an aesthetic nostalgia that oozes from the film’s every pore. Aided by the dancing hand-held cinematography of Sean Price Williams, for whom every hour seems to be magic hour, Perry has created an idyllic vision of the present in which Apple products are wondrously absent from all facets of life. Typewriters stand in for laptops, and pretty girls scribble their digits on scraps of loose-leaf paper; single malt scotch is readily available to be consumed from crystal tumblers at all hours of the day and everyone is draped in beige cardigans. The summer heat is fleeting, and the crisp golden brown of autumn lingers just a little bit longer than it should.
“It’s all a perfect world that I wish we could live in” Perry says, “and it’s great for me to spend a year in living it—this beautiful world where everyone wears corduroy, everything is simple, no one’s glued to their devices—all those poisons are not a part of people’s lives. For me its like, well I sure missed out on that, let me recreate it for myself.”
While the director has a firm grasp on the distinction between reality and fiction, for Philip, that boundary becomes increasingly blurred. He fashions his life with a stubborn meticulousness that eschews practicality—and ultimately happiness—in favor of a very specific vision of what a writer’s life should look and sound like. Philip wears tweed blazers in the blazing summer heat and speaks in pre-scripted dialogue (Ike: “That’s a very potent image” Philip: “I thought of it on my way over, I’m glad you approve”). Concerned with the words as they appear on the page rather than what’s written between the lines, Philip is so captivated by Ike’s life as an abstract concept that he’s completely blind to the casualties of its reality—casualties made painfully clear through the strained relationship the older writer barely maintains with his rightfully bitter daughter (Krysten Ritter).
“[Phillip] is so enamored of that world, it’s all he ever wanted,” Perry notes. “So, master of his own destiny, he makes things as he always envisioned them. He’s a miserable lonely guy, who’s wrapped up in his own success and friends with his heroes… just like he always imagined it.”
We’re told by the narrator at the end of the film (spoiler alert!) that our hero has resigned himself to becoming an “isolated and emotionless specter, forever remaining a mystery, even to himself.” A happy ending in line with his preferred literary tradition of solipsism, it’s as if Bogosian’s voice finally aligns with Philip’s to pen the perfect conclusion to his greatest creative achievement—himself.