Sometimes a film comes along that is less about providing entertainment than it is about delving into the mind of the author who penned the screenplay. Listen Up Philip ends up feeling that way in relation to its writer and director, Alex Ross Perry, like a self-critical analysis of what it means to be a writer and how that affects the writer’s loved ones and ultimately can turn a person into a pretentious ass, doomed to perpetual self-loathing and arrogance. That isn’t to say that Perry is throwing himself a pity party, but rather is deconstructing his own authorial identity through his portrayal of a comically pretentious protagonist whose life is framed by equally pretentious narration.
We join the titular Philip (Jason Schwartzman) as he is on the cusp of publishing his second novel, a milestone of success many authors do not reach and the signal of a turning point in Philip’s life as the promise of success looms on the horizon. However, this film isn’t about his professional successes (as we never see or hear a single word Philip has written), but rather about his failures as a human being. The narrator, using turns of phrase that would make the old women of any book club swoon with adoration, guides us not only through Philip’s life, but through the lives of his increasingly alienated girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) and a newly-adopted mentor figure in the form of once-successful author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce).
As Philip begins to allow his success to take over his ego, we see his self-centeredness push Ashley away, and during the film’s middle third we observe Ashley’s recovery from what she comes to recognize was a one-sided and ultimately abusive relationship. Conversely, a portion of the film’s latter third is devoted to the exploits of Ike as he tries to recapture the productivity and spirit of his youth, only to discover that he has no sources of inspiration as he has pushed away anyone and everyone who would have provided any. These representations of Philip’s past and future make Philip’s inevitable fall both tragic and sympathetic, ultimately painting the paradoxical picture of a horrible human being too blinded by his own hubris to recognize who he is becoming and why that is undesirable. Even Philip’s exaggeratedly grandiose dialogue seems carefully plotted as opposed to other, more casually conversational characters, signaling the self-imposed pedestal that he and he alone occupies.
Alas, as brilliantly self-analytical as Perry’s work seems, it does suffer from some structural issues that feel like they would be more at home in a novel than on the screen. The vignettes of Ashley and Ike take up a significant amount of screentime, so much so that for about half the film’s runtime our protagonist is lurking in the background, appearing only occasionally to remind us that this is truly his story. In the novelistic way the film is told, these diversions would have been many chapters long and would have been subject to more artistic transition and potential interweaving, but here they make for a lull in the proceedings, overstaying their welcome after their point has already been made.
That, however, is a small gripe for what is otherwise a provocatively intriguing film. This is a story about the dangers of success and losing sight of the important things in life, and perhaps it is a cautionary tale to other writers to not end up as Philip, alone and friendless with only his talent for company.