We all know how we are supposed to act around other people, even the most socially awkward among us (myself included). Part of being a part of society is this unspoken social contract we enter into to not always say what is on our minds or to hold back criticisms based on some circumstances so as not to hurt someone’s feelings. In short, there is a general expectation that we should be polite to others and that the same politeness will be reciprocated by others. They are a sort of artificial barrier and buffer that grow up amongst people, and some people are better or worse at it depending on the situation. Disagreements, fights, resentments, and many other problems can rise up between people when one thinks another has violated this buffer; often times it is unintentional, sometimes it is deliberate. No matter who we are, there have likely also been moments where we have wished that we could say whatever is on our mind, consequences be damned, or we think of something we wish we had said in the moment. Philip Lewis Friedman, the titular character of Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, is a character who is completely self-absorbed and chooses to ignore these societal conventions and say exactly how he feels at all times.
Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is an author living in New York City, about to have his second novel published. He is, in his own words, more noteworthy than notable (the fact that his is debating this out loud to someone clues you in how self-absorbed he is). A moment of anger boils up in his that results in him telling off his ex-girlfriend at lunch, and the feeling of empowerment it instills in him prompts him to be more outwardly direct with his opinions, his criticisms, and his general thoughts, whether warranted or not. Philip befriends an equally misanthropic author, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who sees Philip as a protégé of sorts and the two strike up a friendship of equal disdain for the rest of the world. Deciding to forego a book promoting tour (under some vague notion of artistic integrity), Philip leaves his girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) in the city for the summer at Ike’s country home, where Ike’s daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) is staying, and eventually a semester at college teaching literary fiction where he butts heads with Yvette (Josephine de La Baume), a fellow teacher who resents him for getting the job despite having no academic background.
The film is a look at the life of a narcissist at the crossroads, facing an existential crisis of sorts. There seem to be warning signs for Philip all around (hence the title, I think), and while there are instances and moments that seem to prompt Philip to want to change in some way, every instinct he has is to double down and become more inwardly focused. The end of the film serves as a comeuppance for Philip and the question that lingers in the air of whether he has run out of chances and whether the die has already been cast on the trajectory of his life is definitively answered. If the film were only a character study of Philip, it would be a grating and tedious film, given how unlikable he is as a character (Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg came to mind for me).
Thankfully, the film takes a middle act sojourn away from a Philip-centric narrative to tell Ashley’s story. Ashley finds herself at a crossroad as well, given the uncertain, tenuous relationship that she has with Philip, a relationship that the ever-present narrative voiceover of the film (Eric Bogosian) tells us was already beginning to sour. Despite the air Philip’s presence sucked out of her life, his absence leaves a void, and it is a void that Ashley is unsure how to fill. And we see in flashback at least some humanizing moments of when their relationship first began that shows at least why it is a struggle for her to let go of him. When Philip returns several times unannounced into her life it catches her off guard and you feel her struggle of whether or not she should let him back into her life; the safety of the familiar or the uncertainty of the unknown.
While Ashley finds herself at a crossroads because of the absence of Philip in her life, Ike finds himself at a crossroads because of the presence of Philip in his life. Having shut himself off from the world, most of his friends, and family for many years, Ike find Philip’s friendship reinvigorating, and he shows glimpses of wanting to “re-enter” society. However, he is much, much further down the misanthropic path that Philip is on, and he is simply too far gone down that path to divert from it; he just does not know any other way to live and behave at this point. The sad state of his relationship with his daughter, who he continually forgets is even around, and with whom he willfully self-sabotages any chances at reconciliation, is the clearest example of just how out of touch he has chosen to make himself to anyone’s feelings and needs other than his own.
Because of the broader focus the film takes on the three characters, the film does not completely collapse under the insufferable weight of Philip’s self-absorption. In fact, there are some deeply dry laughs to be found throughout the film. Several interactions between Philip and Ike have small little comments of equal parts disdain and attempts to one-up the other in their misanthropic viewpoint; they feel no need to hide their opinion on anything and their over-self-awareness means that any comments that are perceived as cutting and hurtful by anyone else are merely glancing blows that they both just shrug off. There is a scene when Philip is holding office hours on campus and a student comes asking for a reference that produces on of the most disdainful, nonchalant, and funniest lines I’ve heard in a movie in quite some time. Listen Up Philip is a well-rounded, dryly comedic character study of the dangers of not having a filter between your brain and the your mouth and extreme self-absorbed narcissism left unchecked.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars