“I won, they lost,” Alex Ross Perry said of his “enemies,” as a way of introducing the NYFF premiere of his new film, Listen Up Philip. That character, the kind of director who would say that, seems similar to the eponymous writer played by Jason Schwartzman in the film: a hilariously bitter novelist who is reckoning with the baby steps of fame, the awkwardness of becoming what he’d always admired. He aims wildly petty, hilarious attacks at potential groupies, ex-friends and ex-girlfriends, anyone who committed the crime of not appreciating him enough before success. [Full disclosure, in life I have been the target of a few of these rants from Perry.]
He connects with a hero, the famous Philip Roth-like author, Ike Zimmerman, a complete narcissist played superbly by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce plays the role with great fun and hauteur by seeming to be above the production.
Elisabeth Moss as Philip’s photographer girlfriend Ashley is also extraordinary in a much quieter performance. There is one fantastic scene of her pensive at a photo shoot, as mirrors and a sparkling dress pass behind her. It’s one of the best shots yet in cinematographer Sean Price William’s career, using sequence as well as in classic Hollywood films, like Carole Lombard’s glittering entrance in My Man Godfrey.
Schwartzman does deliver some very witty lines. (“I don’t have a very academic relationship with form. Or Style,” he says to a college class.) And he brings wonderfully rich associations to Rushmore. Yet he always feels a little false. That thematically and stylistically makes sense. Philip doesn’t know how to be. As Philip models himself after his hero, Ike, the film models itself very blatantly on its funny forefathers Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives), Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums & Rushmore), and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, most obviously).
After the flameout of his relationship with Ashley, Philip gets involved with a fellow teacher, Yvette, and adamantly tells her that he’s interested in being–or learning to play the role of–a successful artist, much more so than being a person. He sets them up oppositionally.
At the center of the film is the break-up between Ashley and Philip, which could be read as an indulgent depiction of a man behaving badly. But more accurately, I think, it’s about the painful divorce of two sides of one person. In order to be a “real artist” in the world, he separates that role from his humanity, his empathy and vulnerability represented by Ashley’s relationship with a cat she adopts. And the new role as an artist is an awkward fit.
In all three of Perry’s films, the characters spend most of the film being bewilderingly confident fakes. Until the end.
Like the confessional monologues at the end of his last two films, a heart-stomping sequence of words ends this film, too. The narrator talks over the final confrontation between Ashley and Philip, in a beautiful scene that takes place in the past and present. The voice lets us know that this phase was the worst period in Philip’s life, in all of their lives. Yet does this give hope that the revelations of the art, what the narrator knows, will ever be known consciously in the life of the artist? “Forever remaining a mystery, even to himself,” are the narrator’s last words.