Listen Up Philip: Sundance Review

Egocentric men behaving badly all the time; critics will embrace, audiences will steer clear.

Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss star in writer-director Alex Ross Perry's feature about the self-destructive impulses of a talented young novelist.

Alex Ross Perry continues his cinematic quest to test the limits of just how far you can take the obnoxious misanthropy of your leading characters in Listen Up Philip. Explicitly set in the literary world for which the writer-director has indirectly evinced a great affinity in his previous, ultra-low-budget features, Impolex and The Color Wheel, this more ambitious venture focuses on the willfully self-destructive impulses of a talented young novelist who simultaneously sabotages the potential success of his new novel and his love life, partly through his admiring relationship with a venerable older writer whose antisocial behavior is far more evolved than his own. Critics will gather around this indisputably talented work for its risk-taking, dark humor and barbed portraiture of creative individuals, but beyond sophisticates with a masochistic streak, audiences will not take up Perry's dare to embrace this acridly engaging work.

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Perry's no-budget 2009 debut Impolex was inspired by a passage from Gravity's Rainbow, while his well-received second outing, The Color Wheel, in 2011, acknowledged a debt to Philip Roth. The revered, nasty old novelist in the new film, Ike Zimmerman, superbly played here by Jonathan Pryce, is clearly based on Roth, while Perry has acknowledged that his decision to remove the central character from the film altogether for about a third of its running time was inspired by William Gaddis' similar gambit in his epic first novel, The Recognitions.

In the very first scene, Perry does all he can to ensure that author Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) can only be regarded as a total a--hole. When his ex-girlfriend shows up a few minutes late for a rare get-together, he berates her mercilessly, whereupon she calls him “an insufferable piece of shit.” Some mordant narration, superbly delivered by Eric Bogosian, rates just a notch below that of Barry Lyndon in the matter of putting the title character in his place.

The bearded, thirtyish Philip is on the brink of publishing his second novel but, with his unchecked hubris and arrogance, you'd think he'd already been anointed as the new Salinger. Just as his editor gives him the bad news that The New York Times will be publishing an unfavorable review, Philip announces that he'll do no press interviews. When a cute young woman (Dree Hemingway) at a photo shoot kisses him and tells him she wants to be his groupie, he blows her off. However, this isn't due to a resolute loyalty to his live-in girlfriend, professional photographer Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), whom he informs that the great Zimmerman likes his book so much that he's invited him to come up and stay — alone — at his country house so he can get some writing done, which he can't manage in New York City. “You used to be so exciting. Now you're just pitiful,” Ashley exclaims, having now joined Philip's growing non-fan club.

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However advanced for his age Philip may be at being rude and alienating others, he's still a piker compared to Ike Zimmerman. The author of many classics (the clever book jackets of which sometimes evoke the typeface and design of Roth's), Zimmerman has largely withdrawn from society but can't rid himself of his daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter), whom he considers “a pain in the ass.” In an extended sequence brimming with queasy, are-we-really-going-to-go-there vibes that evoke a Cassavetes film like Husbands, Zimmerman and an even older friend drink and carry on with some seemingly up-for-it middle-aged women, only to be interrupted by a disgusted Melanie, who ruins the evening for her father.

For his part, Philip briefly returns to the city to find himself kicked out of the apartment he'd shared with Ashley, who, having weathered the separation, now prefers life without her curmudgeonly mate.

Settling in as a teacher at a rural college, Philip emulates his hero Zimmerman by keeping a distance from students and fellow teachers alike, even if, in the film's least satisfactory interlude, he initiates a romance with a French colleague, Yvette (Josephine de La Baume).

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At a ripe young age when he should be flowering, Philip paints himself into a solitary corner, stemming from an innate antisocial streak exacerbated by a dreadful choice of a role model. As his life shrivels, so does his creativity, although a blast of narration at the end succinctly enumerates some key events in the rest of Philip's life. There will not, we can assume, be a sequel.

Like an imaginative novelist, Perry plays a lot of narrative games here, thwarting expectations here, taking left turns there, abruptly starting and stopping scenes and replacing expository dialogue with narration that saves time but also pulls the viewer away from the character and into the caustic mind-set of a detached, even vindictive observer. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who shot Perry's previous two outings, has acknowledged the visual influence of Woody Allen's Husband and Wives on Listen Up Philip, and it's easy to see in the mobile, agitated nature of much of the camerawork; the film feels very alive most of the time.

Schwartzman makes his character's profoundly negative personality more than convincing, to the point where it's often pretty hard to take. In contrast, Pryce's Zimmerman is so far down the tracks in the same direction that he's madly entertaining in his negativism — call him Zimmerman unbound. This may be the veteran Welsh actor's most incisive big-screen performance, and it's a tribute to Perry's writing that he makes the voices of the two authors so distinct despite the men's similar attitudes. Moss skillfully flashes fine-tuned emotional shifts in short periods of time as a woman who summons newfound inner strength.

Technically and in his work with actors, Philip represents a great leap forward for Perry; a subsequent jump might involve presenting a central character with whom viewers could legitimately engage. Barring that, he could create a central figure so magnetically malignant that audiences would be mesmerized.

Production: Washington Square Films, Sailor Bear Productions

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Josephine de La Baume, Jess Weixler, Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson, Samantha Jacober, Eric Bogosian

Director-screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry

Producers: Katie Stern, Joshua Blum, James M. Johnston, Toby Halbrooks, David Lowery

Executive producer: Christos V. Konstantakopoulos

Director of photography: Sean Price Williams

Production designer: Scott Kuzio

Costume designer: Amanda Ford

Editor: Robert Greene

Music: Keegan DeWitt

No rating, 110 minutes