Jason Schwartzman has made a career of playing pompous narcissists. From his earliest role in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore to his self-congratulatory comedian from Funny People to his distracted private investigator on HBO’s Bored to Death, Schwartzman is so good at playing this type that no one could be blamed for assuming it represents his true personality. It’s not for me to say how self-obsessed the actor may or may not be (though I did see him in real life with my own eyes last night – he seemed nice enough), but I can say that his work in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip feels like the culmination of everything he has done with this basic archetype. Seriously, I cannot imagine anyone more pompous or more narcissistic than Philip Lewis Friedman. Frankly, I don’t want to.
Schwartzman’s Philip is an author awaiting the publication of his second novel. We learn via an unseen narrator (voiced by Eric Bogosian) that the process of writing this book has driven Philip even deeper down the misanthropic rabbit hole his head was already stuck. His relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), has suffered as a result, as has his deal with his publisher, especially after he refuses to do any publicity for the book. Instead Philip spends more and more time with a similarly disaffected but much more successful author (Jonathan Pryce) in his country retreat.
The very first sequence involves Philip dressing down both an ex-girlfriend and a former roommate. These scenes do a great job of introducing just what kind of guy Philip is, but they also illuminate the film’s structure. The Narrator is kind to Philip here, making it seem like his cannon-loosing comes after a lifetime of holding his tongue, but we eventually learn that this is not true – Philip has always spoken his mind, he just doesn’t realize how rampant his opinions run. Since these scenes are “written” from his perspective, the Narrator can be forgiven for being so generous to the main character. Later, much like a novel, the film’s focus shifts to Ashley’s perspective, and even later it shifts to Pryce’s Ike. These sections further describe Philip, but they also show the influence (negative and positive) that he has on those around him.
This stream of consciousness-styled narrative comes at the expense of any real plot. That’s okay for the most part, as Schwartzman and the rest of the cast are entertaining enough to sustain several disparate scenes, but Philip’s shtick becomes more grating as the runtime keeps going. Perhaps that is Perry’s intention – for the viewer to get as annoyed with Philip as the characters around him are – but it makes the film’s 108 minutes feel even longer.
Then there is the cinematography problem. Perry and his director of photography, Sean Price Williams, utilize a lot of handheld camera work, which gets shakier from time to time as characters get emotional. For some reason this has become a hallmark of independent film – particularly mumblecore – and it’s kind of infuriating. It reeks of laziness that is being passed off as style. No one is asking for Akira Kurosawa-levels of composition, but I would appreciate it if directors like Perry put a little more thought into such things.
Ultimately such shortcomings don’t affect Listen Up Philip too greatly. It is funny and sad and all kinds of emotions, much in the way Woody Allen’s work used to be. Schwartzman is very funny, and he is one of our best Hollywood assholes (this is a compliment, I swear). Maybe, however, it is time for him to take a little break from playing the Philips of the world.