Film / Theatre Reviews - Reviews

Listen Up Philip


The saying goes that if you think everyone you meet is an asshole, then the real asshole is probably you. Alex Ross Perry’s brilliant, caustic Listen Up Philip serves up two of recent cinema’s finest assholes, a men of letters two-hander of Jason Schwartzman’s young novelist and Jonathan Pryce as the past-it literary icon he so admires. Schwartzman has a habit of playing characters on the fringes of sufferability, from Funny People‘s sell-out comic to the word-smart P.I in Bored to Death, and here he pushes through to the other side, into a glorious, all-out prickishess.

Philip (Schwartzman) is preparing for the launch of his second novel, saddling his publisher with an unpronounceable title and a refusal of do press, both acts of manufactured integrity. Philip comes from a line of literate, urbane, young male heroes beloved by New York film-makers, from Woody Allen to Noah Baumbach (whose recent While We’re Young now feels particularly lightweight). These are men whose neuroses and dense, quick smatter we’re supposed to find charming, but the film is frank about the character type’s horribleness as a model for actual human behaviour. It uses shifting perspectives to lay out in detail how intolerable this person would be in real life, methodically pushing its stake through the genre’s tweed heart.

With a passive-aggressive curtness, Philip abandons his photographer girlfriend Ashley (a luminous Elizabeth Moss) for the country writing retreat of literary lion Ike Zimmerman (‘I think it’ll be great for us, but mostly for me’). Ike (Pryce)’s daughter (Krysten Rtter) is staying there too, too bruised by her father’s years of philandering to pretend to be impressed with him or his new friend. Ike, who hasn’t written a page in years, views his don’t-say-protégé with a gleam bordering on the vampirish, soaking up the attention and implied sage role. He offers Philip a version of his future – bored, unfulfilled, rambling about vultures and sycophants – but Philip’s not going to be reading any lessons into his friend. They’re both self-absorbed literary machos, more interested in settling scores than producing work, sensitive to all slights and betrayals, real of otherwise. Their habit for clever turns of phrase (‘I’m not even notable. Just noteworthy’) mask an inner gnawing and it’s left to the women in their lives, Ashley or Ike’s daughter (Krysten Ritter), to register the pain and tragedy of their blind self-destruction. With a rich, grainy texture, jazz score and Eric Bogosian’s dry voiceover, Listen Up Philip pursues ugly truths with a frequently startling beauty.

If all of this sounds unbearably grim, then Listen Up Philip is precisely the opposite. Philip’s frank dickishness is deeply, deeply funny, the dagger dialogue and Schwartzman’s deadpan mousey expression delivering some of the year’s blackest laughs. Together him and Ike are a pathetic delight, two men skilled in the arts of emotional bullshit, locked into the obliviousness that comes with being unkind, producing nothing but wreckage and bewilderment around them. Resisting sentiment or compromise, Listen Up Philip borrows the form of the mannered New York comedy in order to eviscerate it. As far as funerals go, it’s a fucking riot. Conor Smyth

 Listen Up Philip is showing at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast from Friday June 5 until June 11.


Conor Smyth is the Film Editor at The Thin Air and regular Banterflix contributor. Follow him @csmythrun.