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Review: 'Listen Up Philip' is both celebration and desecration of a fading era

Jason Schwartzman plays an abrasive young novelist who mistreats his patient girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) in Alex Ross Perry's "Listen Up Philip."

Elisabeth Moss plays the very patient girlfriend of the very abrasive Jason Schwartzman in "Listen Up Philip." Credit: Tribeca Film Elisabeth Moss plays the very patient girlfriend of the very abrasive Jason Schwartzman in "Listen Up Philip."
Credit: Tribeca Film

‘Listen Up Philip’
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Stars: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss
Rating: R
5 (out of 5) Globes

When “Listen Up Philip” opens, Jason Schwartzman is sweatily navigating through one of New York City’s biggest headaches: slow, dense foot traffic. He’s not just annoyed; it’s all he can think about. His is the look of a true New Yorker — except there’s something more on his face. As revealed by the dryly erudite narrator (Eric Bogosian), Philip — a young novelist whose sophomore effort is about to hit shelves — has made a conscious decision to up what is his already clearly abrasive, hostile behavior. Indeed, he’s rushing to a lunch with a notoriously truant ex, whom he will eloquently and devastatingly tell off before storming off.

Philip isn’t merely cruel; he’s old school New York City literati cruel. It’s clear writer-director Alex Ross Perry — of the enjoyably sour “The Color Wheel” — has modeled his antihero on Philip Roth, though he’s more like someone who aspires to be him. Indeed, Philip has attracted the interest of Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a titan with some Roth tendencies; among many other differences from Roth, Zimmerman hasn't put out a book in years. Philip is so emboldened by his success — minor though it may be, in an age when no one reads books — that he extends his mistreatment towards his girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). First he suddenly decamps for Zimmerman’s remote cabin for the summer; when he returns he dumps her.

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What Philip does might have been impressive in the ’60s or ’70s, even the ’90s or some of the aughts. But in 2014 his behavior seems out-of-date. He’s enamored with a bygone era, one that may not have been all that hot to begin with. Philip admires and aspires to be those macho writers, who drank too much, argued too much and were casually dismissive of women, even the ones drawn to them. Look closely and you can spot an impish vulnerability to Philip, a hesitancy he masks with his bulldog act and his gift for erudite (and highly quotable) put-downs. He’s a boy in moth-ridden clothes that don’t fit him, which should be apparent when he gets to Zimmerman’s compound and finds not Roth but a bitter, lonely, sour drunk who tells you he’s giving you the 25-year Laphroaig when he’s really giving you the 10-year.

Jonathan Pryce plays a Philip Rothian novelist Jason Schwartzman's writer idolizes, seen in one of "Listen Up Philip" grainy, loose on-film images. Credit: Tribeca Film Jonathan Pryce plays a Philip Rothian novelist Jason Schwartzman's writer idolizes, seen in one of "Listen Up Philip" grainy, loose on-film images.
Credit: Tribeca Film

What’s more, Ashley isn’t one of those women who will take it. Ashley is shocked when Philip turns on her, but though she retains feelings for him — or at least the ever so slightly nicer former him, the one we never see — she proves resilient and ready to delete him from her life (which is to say rid herself of his physical belongings). The women of “Listen Up Philip” are better than the men but no less interesting. Ashley can be as sarcastic as Philip, as can Melanie (Krysten Ritter), Zimmerman’s suspicious daughter, who comes to crash her dad’s home only to find a bearded wannabe kid, trying his damndest to be the father she hates.

“Listen Up Philip” isn’t just an acidic paean to New York’s old lit scene; it’s a throwback to old moviemaking. Perry shoots this in super grainy Super 16mm, his camera inches away from faces that become Seurat dots, rather than lifelike digital pictures. It harkens back to John Cassavetes’ rough-and-tumble “Faces” or the films of Norman Mailer, but it isn’t mere retro or an imitation. Perry has his own voice (and one he doesn't change up just because he has name actors; the film looks only slightly less scrappy than "The Color Wheel"). The camera pushes up close to faces, as if trying to read thoughts. You can see brains working overtime to come up with quips or insults, people who are always in motion, roaming wildly from room to room and trying to never stop. The camerawork (by Sean Price Williams) and editing (by Robert Greene) move fast; scenes cut out right after jokes, or even before they’re done.

It would be erroneous to say it’s a movie that looks forward while destroying the past, showing a scene for the over-idolized, miserable thing it became or always was. It loves the past. It loves Philip Roth’s world even as it recognizes it can be poisonous if one sank too deep into it. It’s sad that it missed out on what was probably a good time, even if it was always bound to end in bitterness and failure. As a portrait of a fading scene, it’s a celebration and a desecration at the same time.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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