I almost didn’t see Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip at Sundance this year. I wasn’t a huge fan of Perry’s previous film, The Color Wheel, and thus was on the fence about seeing this one. A friend encouraged me to catch it anyhow, thinking I might like it, so when I wandered into the P&I tent after a canceled lunch date to see what the TBA was and found it was this film, I shrugged and took a seat. I’m so glad I did, because this film shattered whatever preconceived notions I’d had going in. Which is an object lesson for me, I guess, in not holding prejudice against a particular film just because I didn’t connect with the director’s previous work. So noted.
The story here revolves around Philip (expertly portrayed by that master of brooding man-boys, Jason Schwartzman), a talented writer who’s decidedly lacking in “works and plays well with others” on the report card of life. When we meet Philip, he’s channeling some serious anxiety over the publication of his new novel, along with some equally serious rage at the world. You could maybe excuse him if he was just having a rough time of things, but the film makes it clear early on that this is who Philip is: a talented but tragically solipsistic man whose issues go far beyond the mere stereotype of the difficult, selfish artist. He’s mean, he’s arrogant, he lacks empathy for others, and he views everything that happens through a lens tinted sharply by his favorite subject: himself.
Schwartzman brings this egotistic, misanthropic writer to life on screen with what can only be described as absolute commitment. With every tic of facial expression, every glower of darkly brooding brow, he owns Philip unapologetically. If he was going to take on the part of this asshole, he was going to do it thoroughly, and boy, does he ever. But while Philip may be a completely unlikable, unlovable character, Schwartzman manages to make him real and very human in spite of – perhaps because of – his many flaws.
Philip develops a relationship with a mentor, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a older writer and fellow misanthrope who sees in Philip a younger version of himself (though, as he keeps reminding Philip, he himself had achieved far more in the literary world by the time he was Philip’s age). Philip connects with Ike in a way he doesn’t with anyone else, and yet he’s somehow unable to read his own future in the allegorical tea leaves of Ike’s isolation from others and his utterly dysfunctional relationship with his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter). Instead, Philip just goes plowing along as he has been, tearing through and discarding relationships with both his longtime photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) and Yvette (Josephine de La Baume), an attractive professor at the liberal arts college where he lands an adjunct teaching position. I found it interesting that both of these educated, otherwise intelligent women have extended relationships with this man who cares for no one more than he does himself, and I suspect for some viewers, this aspect of the film will feel like wishful projection.
But here’s a truism about men like Philip: smart women who tell themselves they would never put up with his particular brand of bullshit no matter what nonetheless can and do fall prey to the allure of the reclusive, temperamental, misunderstood genius, and will keep coming back for more. Men like Philip present a challenge to overcome, a puzzle to solve – until the women in their lives finally have enough and say “no more.” And then those men end up alone, feeling misused and mistreated, looking everywhere save within themselves for the answer to the riddle of their loneliness and isolation.
While both The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip deal with inherently unlikeable and self-absorbed characters, in the sense of both story and technical skill, this film represents a huge leap in maturity, style and substance from Perry. Although he’s working again with cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who also shot The Color Wheel, there’s a completely different level of artistic sensibility going on with this film, in everything from the way shots are framed, to the use of music, to the overall color design, which lends a warm, golden tone to the film that serves to contrast starkly with the coldness of Philip’s behavior and personality in a way that works very well. The film looks absolutely gorgeous in every frame, evoking a beauty that’s absent from the soul of its subject.
I’d heard a lot of mixed reactions from press folks around this film, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Philip goes beyond the mere unlikable; he’s the kind of person many of us would go out of our way to actively avoid having in our lives. And yet, I found myself, if not exactly liking Philip, at least not hating him. As a character, Philip’s not unlike many artists I know, though many of us wouldn’t necessarily want to see ourselves reflected in the choices he makes. Being an artist, a person not only committed to creating, but who cannot imagine doing anything else, does require a certain degree of selfishness. Creating art requires time and solitude and mental space, and if the best art comes from within us, it also demands that we spend enough time in our own heads to be able to draw out our own truths and weave them into something we can share with the world.
Philip takes this to an extreme, yes, and his misanthropy certainly isn’t typical of every artist. But in his insularity, his willingness to put his work above all else, even his relationships, there’s a glimmer of recognition many of us who work in the creative realm can identify with, even as he makes us cringe in moments of self-awareness as his focus becomes more about himself and less about the work. How much Philip’s truth reflects Perry’s own truths as the film’s writer and director, I couldn’t say. But I can say, without reservation, that with Listen Up Philip he’s certainly speaking a truth, and doing so with a rare, unflinching honesty, even if it’s sometimes hard to watch Philip’s tragically miserable existence unfold.