Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip hilariously ravages the intelligentsia
Alex Ross Perry skewers the narcissistic male creative as only a narcissistic male creative can in his third feature, Listen Up Philip. Anchored by Jason Schwartzman as the titular Philip Lewis Friedman, a shamelessly self-centred writer on the verge of the release of his second novel and in the final throes of a fading relationship, Listen Up Philip is an ensemble piece hiding in a character study. Along with Schwartzman’s Friedman, the main players are: Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss), Philip’s successful photographer girlfriend; Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a highly successful writer and Philip’s idol; Melanie Zimmerman (Krysten Ritter), long neglected daughter of Ike; and Yvette Dussart (Joséphine de La Baume), a rival teacher and romantic interest for Philip at the liberal-arts college he spends a semester teaching at.
Shot by Sean Price Williams on high contrast 16mm, most of Listen Up Philip is spent in a shaky, handheld close up – at times characters are lost as the camera can’t keep up with them. They’re in their own world, and Perry lives there with them; if they're lucky enough to get a wide shot it feels like they're being rewarded. Still, Perry has little interest in fleshing out the world around them – the New York of Listen Up Philip is both in the present and out of time, although it takes a while to figure that out. All communication is through the post or over the phone, all writing is done on typewriters, and no one uses a mobile phone; other than by out-of-focus cars in the background and equipment in Ashley's studio, their world is almost entirely devoid of technology. It's a heightened reality, where writers are celebrities and men are (more) self-centred and misogynistic.
There’s more literature than cinema behind Perry’s work – his first feature, Impolex, was a reworking of Thomas Pynchon; his second, The Color Wheel, felt like a Philip Roth story. For Listen Up Philip, Perry pulls much from Roth: the title character bears his name; Zimmerman takes his character; even the title card uses his font. But Listen Up Philip's scope exceeds Roth alone, instead aiming for a broad dissection of the male intellectual – a group which Roth, Pynchon, and Perry himself are all members.
Perry comes to this place by way of Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson – his characters are as scathing and realised as any of Baumbach’s, while the narrative passes between each of them in a manner reminiscent of The Royal Tenenbaums. Perry takes these influences to their logical endpoints, with Ike Zimmerman feeling like The Squid and the Whale’s Bernard Berkman's dark future, and the narrative wandering so much that our protagonist is at one point absent for a good half hour. This by no means pigeonholes Perry – by the end of the picture these influences have become his peers. His previous films hinted at the makings of an important filmmaker; with Listen Up Philip, Perry has arrived.