Listen Up Philip, comedy, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles Awaiting publication of his second novel, Obidant, Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) stands at a crossroads of his own doing. Success doesn’t make him happy, so he is miserable.
Philip is the star of his own story, always — so much so that he has a habit of calling up old girlfriends so he can stage cruel redemption scenes for himself, which the women never fall for. His current girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), a successful photographer, is no longer falling for his shtick, either. Philip is suffering, acutely and perpetually. He abruptly refuses to do any readings or media interviews to promote Obidant. At the same time, he meets a luminary novelist, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who tells him he’ll never write another word in the noisy city and invites him to spend some time at his country house (which is, inexplicably, adjacent to a busy highway). Philip is insufferable, but he’s young. Ike has had decades to alienate everyone he loves. In the movie’s delightful voice-over segments by Eric Bogosian, we learn Ike has befriended Philip because he needs the adoration.
Listen Up Philip is a send-up of literary novels and writer culture, especially the ascendancy of a certain kind of male writer. Norman Mailer, Frank Conroy, and Tom Wolfe gave way to Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggars, and … Philip Lewis Friedman. As their narrative voices — and their media interviews and New Yorker essays — always let us know, they are smarter than everyone else and pained by our ignorance and constant attempts to humiliate their genius. To mimic and skewer the “craft” stylings of literary fiction, writer and director Alex Ross Perry overuses the same cinematic tricks often overused by earnest indie filmmakers — needless, cloying close-ups and quick cuts to random body parts and objects that don’t actually further a story. The movie’s structure, pacing, and narrative point of view are those of literary novels, which are (despite academic claims to the contrary) often as conventional and predictable as “genre” romance or mystery novels. And such works often exploit human emotion in self-justifying ways. In this case, Philip keeps looking for the woman who can set him on the path to righteousness, except that he hates women, and himself, and really everyone else too. All the women in the movie function as one-dimensional windows to Philip’s soul; they are merely abstract assumptions about what women think and do when they aren’t with men. The subversion here is that this brilliant movie refuses to give Philip what he desires.
— Jennifer Levin