Jason Schwartzman in “Listen Up Philip” plays a frosty, frothy, Faustian Philip Roth-ian narcissist novelist with such an acid tongue you’ll wonder if someone has spirited away the usually sweet, self-deprecating actor and stashed him in a trunk somewhere.
And then you won’t care because the terribly unlikable Philip Lewis Friedman is so brilliantly conceived by indie auteur Alex Ross Perry and so audaciously played by Schwartzman.
While the intolerance fueling this dark, existential comedy won’t be to everyone’s liking, the film’s cerebral beat-down is a strange and sardonic thing of beauty.
Perry puts an eclectic ensemble of players around Schwartzman, including Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter and Joséphine de La Baume. Eric Bogosian’s soothing and sage narration bookends the film and fills in needed exposition along the way.
Between narrator and the collection of characters who move in and out of Philip’s life, Perry cracks open a very particular can of worms. As we immediately learn, Schwartzman’s emerging artiste head is crammed with the typical literary allusions and illusions of the newly anointed.
It is a distressed place where anger and entitlement battle for supremacy.
It’s a draw.
Philip’s second novel is about to be published and is already generating critical attention. The day is sunny, but Philip isn’t. There are old scores to settle. First up is ex-girlfriend Mona (Samantha Jacober), her lateness in showing up for their lunch date lights a fuse that refuses to be extinguished.
The dialogue in that scene is so scalding you can almost feel the words burn. If there is no other take-away from the movie, the power of language to destroy is proven again and again.
Next up to be brought down is Parker (Steven Boyer), Philip’s college roommate. They had similar aspirations, and Philip is enraged that Parker fizzled, leaving him to shoot through the literary stratosphere alone.
As Ashley (Moss), Philip’s current girlfriend, puts it as they clink glasses of celebratory champagne — two “nemesii” shot down in one day.
Though it is never stated, Philip’s antisocial behavior is certainly flavored by the public persona of the legendary Roth. The Philip of the film petulantly refuses to go on book tours or do press, and he insults the photographer taking his publicity photos. He is a man waging war with the inept humanity he sees everywhere he goes. Ashley, who is increasingly bored with his behavior, does not get a pass.
Philip’s island in the storm is Ike Zimmerman (Pryce). A literary lion Philip has worshiped for years, Ike takes an interest in the young novelist, adopts him as a protégé and proceeds to manipulate him into an even more obnoxious mini-me.
Just when you think you might not be able to stand Philip any longer, Perry sends him away. He leaves Manhattan and Ashley for Ike’s country home upstate and some uninterrupted navel-gazing. Melanie (Ritter), the girl Ike had mentioned who takes care of the place, turns out to be Ike’s daughter. Just as verbal and as bitter as the rest. Nice to see Ritter playing sharp, smart and deep instead of vacuous pretty.
In one of the film’s clever moves, Philip really does disappear while Perry turns his focus to Ashley. In following the ways she begins changing her life in his absence, we come to understand how toxic Philip’s presence was even before the success. Yvette (De La Baume), a college professor Philip becomes involved with later in the film, serves a similar, reflective purpose. Even Ike steps into that role at one point along the way.
Director of photography Sean Price Williams, who has worked on all of Perry’s films, continues to shoot with a handheld camera. Though perhaps Williams’ time on “Impolex” and “The Color Wheel” has made the hand that holds the camera steadier. Whatever the reason, the technique is more effective in “Listen Up Philip”; the obsession with getting right up in the actors’ faces pays off. Their emotionality seems to jump off the screen.
Moss continues to expand her post-"Mad Men” portfolio in “Philip.” Though the AMC series doesn’t end its final season until next year, Moss is breaking away from the advertising copywriter box of Peggy Olson with incredible ease. Ashley, a successful commercial photographer, is one of her more affecting turns and nothing like Peggy. They are coincidentally in the same business but different eras, different attitudes and very different hair.
Pryce as Ike is perfectly pretentious and patronizing and wields his dialogue precisely; it’s like a knife that is so sharp you don’t even know you’ve been cut until you see blood. The actor hasn’t had such an interesting role in a while, and he makes the most of it.
Philip is a substantial tonal shift for Schwartzman. The actor of other existential but more upbeat examinations of the heart and the mind in films such as “Rushmore,” “I Heart Huckabees” and “The Darjeeling Limited” proves surprisingly facile in the way he dances with the devil.
His lack of artifice becomes critical in constructing the literary monster of Philip. Hopefully fans will forgive him for his wonderful awfulness, a green light to tackle other monsters another day.
‘Listen Up Philip
MPAA rating: NR
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood