Sundance Review: 'Listen Up Philip'

Writer/director Alex Ross Perry has some real Philip Roth affection going on - the credits of his films are in "that typeface" - so I'll lay this out in appropriate language. If Perry’s savagely funny "The Color Wheel" was his "Portnoy's Complaint," then "Listen Up Philip" is his "Letting Go."

If you aren't adequately versed in the poet laureate of Weequahic, what that means is "Listen Up Philip” is big, sprawling and tortured, if a little lacking in focus – while funny in parts, it isn't really a comedy. The plot of this 120 minute film (long for an indie these days) can be summed up in a sentence fragment, but the rich scene work and unpredictable storyline make for a probing inquiry into the film's three main characters.

The titular Philip is Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), an angry and arrogant novelist awaiting the publication of his second book. Will financial success follow? This isn't a top concern, especially since the famed Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a little bit modeled after Roth, claims to love the novel and wants to meet up. A mentor-pupil relationship begins, and Philip pulls up stakes from his Brooklyn apartment to tap away at his typewriter in Zimmerman's country home. It's just as well, as he and his live-in girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss, in a role miles from "Mad Men"'s Peggy) have grown distant.

But growing distant is something Philip seems to be doing by design. The film begins with a series of blunt disconnections, as Philip lays into his few friends and basically tells them how horrible they are. It's not an easy way to get to know a new character, but with Eric Bogosian reading pointed prose via narration, these acts (and all others) take on something of a larger, archetypal significance. Philip is a "type," but Perry is unafraid to take the cliche of a prickly author head-on.

To his great aid, Schwartzman is absolute perfect casting. There's a smidgen of his affable "Bored to Death" character in his snarky line readings, so when he's being, let's face it, a colossal douche, it's impossible to fully dislike him. Even when he's telling his publishers he refuses to do any press, even when he's dismissing fans who didn't read his first book, even when he's cursing a colleague who dared to commit suicide, thus cementing his literary career.

There are rock-solid zings throughout the film. I tried jotting some down but the sheer number made this an impossibility. All I know is that I've laughed so hard at an allergy medication joke before.

As in "The Color Wheel," Perry sticks with close-ups of faces with occasional prop inserts. The effect is a little claustrophobic, which works wonderfully for the uncomfortable party scenes and arguments in cramped apartments. "Listen Up Philip" also retains the earlier film's joke-telling-through-editing, where unexpected cuts mid-sentence often reveal the direction of a full scene by showing you what you missed. (Kate Lyn Sheil gets one of the better exits in recent movies by just vanishing from the frame.)

"Listen Up Philip"'s original and ubiquitous score reminds me of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration "Sketches of Spain," just one of the movie's many "classy" influences. Perry's world is one without cell phones (hell, the film is shot on film!) and the absence of prevalent modernity eventually becomes a presence. (No talk of eBooks at the publishers', either.)

Another interesting choice are the lengthy departures Philip takes from the center stage. Pryce's Zimmerman and Moss' successful photographer Ashley have their lives greatly changed by being near the black hole that is Philip, and the film takes its time to observe the ripple effect in their worlds.

If “Listen Up Philip” isn’t fun in the traditional sense, no doubt that is by design - "Philip" is a striking portrait of a guy you don't really want to know, but the feeling is assuredly mutual.

SCORE: 8.9 / 10