Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is a self-absorbed New York novelist. His second book is about to be published when Philip decides he wants to do no publicity. Instead, he abandons the book tour and his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) for a retreat into the country. At the home of reclusive author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), he hopes to continue pursuing his craft, even if it means deserting the people in his life.
This daring dark comedy from writer/director Alex Ross Perry is bound to divide audiences. Many of the characters are toxic, unlikable and self-absorbed. If one is not interested in joining the company of the pompous literary elite, they may not catch Listen Up Philip’s witty, wicked humor and the director’s aim. Perry designs his screenplay to resemble a modernist novel. Meanwhile, his visual style, relying on close-ups so intimate you can almost smell the characters’ breath, is intrusive. This foregrounding is similar to how we would view the characters in our minds if we were reading about them. Further, taking a literary approach, he shifts the narrative to take the perspective of each main character.
Capping off this “book on film” approach is articulate, adjective-heavy voice-over. Audiences may be dumbfounded by the narration, since little of it explains anything further than what we can already see. For instance, the opening voice-over discusses how Philip hates when people are late, a pet peeve that becomes clear in the following scene. However, if one accepts the voice-over as a dryly funny style choice that further satirizes the elite literary community, the verbose screenplay becomes even funnier. It also works for a film about characters that would rather write about life than experience it.
Listen Up Philip is full of great performances. Schwartzman is terrific as the annoyed Philip, trying to find a way into a respectful career that keeps disappointing him. Moss gives another stellar performance as Ashley, trying to break apart from her past. She has great emotional inflection that makes the chapter from her perspective the best one in the film. Pryce is very good in a bitterly funny turn as the Philip Roth-esque mentor. Sadly, Perry’s screenplay doesn’t figure out an interesting route to take Moss and Pryce’s characters.