Listen Up Philip — which inexplicably doesn’t have a comma before the word “Philip” — is a movie about a self-absorbed writer. The lead is Philip (Jason Schwartzman), and he has finished and is about to release his second book. He’s not, in the least bit, a likable person. Somehow, he lives with a girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), although their relationship is not the least bit good, mostly because of how awful a person Philip is.
If you’re expecting that, over the course of the film, Philip will learn how his awfulness rubs off on other people and maybe make an effort to change that, well, you might just be in for a surprise. Listen Up Philip is not particularly interesting in watching its narcissists grow as people — yes, there are multiple — but instead mostly just watches them. It’s an often nasty movie. Philip sees himself as above everyone else in the world, simply because he’s kind of smart and can write decently. He’s basically me, but probably more pleasant. I kid. Kind of. Love me.
Philip eventually gets out of the city after meeting an author, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), whom he’s admired for a long time. Zimmerman, who is basically just an older, crankier version of Philip, likes his books and wants to provide him with a place outside of the city where he can write more. The city, he believes, does not provide a productive energy. Philip doesn’t particularly like the city, anyway, so he jumps at the opportunity. No, he doesn’t even discuss it with Ashley. For part of the film, we only follow Ashley, as she tries to move on from her relationship. She even adopts a cat.
A few other characters come and go. Melanie (Krysten Ritter) is Ike Zimmerman’s daughter, and she lives in the cottage to which Philip is invited. Yvette (Joséphine de La Baume) is a woman who teaches at a college at which Philip is invited to teach a class, and hates him because he’s younger than she is, and she liked having the distinction of being the youngest instructor. And Eric Bogosian narrates the entire film.
I’d like to touch on the narration for a second, actually. There’s too much of it and it’s used as a crutch. “Show, don’t tell,” is an old adage to which I don’t necessarily always subscribe, but if you do, you’re going to be seriously irritated by much of Listen Up Philip. Instead of, you know, showing us what these characters are thinking and feeling, the filmmakers instead have Bogosian tell us. Sometimes it’s funny or endearing, and if used sparingly it can work really well. But it’s used constantly here, so much so that it begins to annoy.
The film feels like it was shot in the ’70s by an independent filmmaker. There’s a lot of film grain, the majority of the shots are with a handheld camera, and many of them are close-ups. What little comedy it contains is fairly dark. It doesn’t compromise its portrayal of its characters to be crowd-pleasing. It, like its main character, doesn’t care. It’s going to do its own thing and it really doesn’t matter what you think of it. That’s … almost admirable when we’re talking about a film, but insufferable when we’re talking about Philip himself. Huh.
Jason Schwartzman is really good at playing this type of character. He’s a great actor who really needs to be in more movies. Elisabeth Moss gets to shine in a supporting role, which for about 15 minutes becomes leading and really showcases Moss’ talents. Jonathan Pryce plays a grumpy recluse perfectly. Krysten Ritter isn’t bad in her part, but she doesn’t really get a whole lot to do. Ditto to Joséphine de La Baume, who only shows up in the last half hour.
Listen Up Philip is an unpleasant film, and I almost mean that as a compliment. Its main character is not a good person, has no intentions of becoming a good person, and the film doesn’t try to force him to. It just watches him. And while you may learn something, it’s also often a difficult watch, especially thanks to the way it was shot, which puts us directly in his immediate presence more often than not. It’s tough to watch and not particularly enjoyable. Does that make it bad? I don’t think so, but it’s not going to be worth seeing for most people.