Listen Up Alex Ross Perry: Your Prose Is Pedantic

By Brandon Howard

“Listen Up Philip,” the latest film by independent writer/director Alex Ross Perry, marks a nail in the coffin for mumblecore filmmaking. Perry’s latest offering is next in the rotation of films such as “Tiny Furniture” and “Francis Ha,” which primarily follow privileged white characters as they navigate their careers and character flaws in an urban New York City setting.

Through film, stories can be conveyed with skillful editing, sound design and production design. The script and the actors are secondary to the ways in which costume, camera and sound reveal thematic detail. “Listen Up Philip” puts the entirety of the film into the script, in which the characters incessantly spew pretentious prose for almost two hours.

The casting is spot-on with Elizabeth Moss, who plays Philip’s neglected girlfriend Ashley Kane, a successful but modest commercial photographer. As Perry’s portrayal of notorious author Philip Roth, Jason Schwartzman stars as Philip Friedman, a self-absorbed, emotionally abusive novelist unfulfilled with his recent success but completely enamored with his self-image. Schwartzman played this role before, to a lesser degree in “Rushmore” and to the point of caricature in “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.” Perhaps now typecast as Hollywood’s go-to “narcissistic intellectual writer,” Schwartzman here does the best he can with what he is given.

After meeting his older, equally self-absorbed writer and doppleganger in the form of Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), Friedman is invited to spend the summer at Ike’s country home. When Kane confronts Friedman about his abrupt departure, she coldly said, “You stood in my way when I had so many opportunities,” to which Friedman, in his perfected Schwartzman-esque tone that is at once both flat and scathing, said, “I guess that’s why I’m telling you about this after I agreed to it.” It is hard to imagine another actor playing this line for laughs the way Schwartzman is able to.

Where Friedman is either repulsive or mildly amusing, Perry succeeds at building compassion for Kane. She purchases a cat out of loneliness and finds difficulty connecting to anybody in a meaningful way, much like Friedman. But in his case, it is impossible to care. Perry intentionally distills the character from what could be a “real” three dimensional portrait of a troubled man, and reduces him to a one-note misanthrope. In an interview with Salon, Schwartzman said Perry told him, “Don’t think of Friedman as a writer. Think of him as an a—–e.” Being one is a quality of a typical character in this film genre. After watching the film, it is apparent Perry wrote Schwartzman as a character devoid of other dimensions, causing the character to fall flat.

The actions of the protagonist are absurd and unmotivated, with random intervals of crass wit, stretching to make a pointed theme of how success does not bring happiness, but turns up empty; a pseudo-intellectual grab more about the rich, hip and pretentious world of the film than any pointed statement. Friedman, when visiting an ex-girlfriend, confesses success has made him exhausted. It is a great moment when she tells him that she does not care to hear him brag—finally, a character for the audience to relate to.

Characters even more repulsive than Friedman have compelled America, but in spite of their deep flaws, the justification for their heinous actions was understood through social context or psychological motivation. Most of his motivation is absent, but the emphasis on his horrible treatment of those close to him is exasperating.

As lazy of a method as voiceover narration is, in this film it does not even provide adequate insight into Friedman’s character. Eric Bogosian, as the narrator, crops up too often with flowery quips devoid of sincerity, and says too much without saying anything at all. Between a heated argument with Friedman and Kane, the narrator chimes in, “Philip wished Ashley had not reminded him how great it felt to be proud of her. His own relationship with success had forced him to grow out of feeling resentful toward her accomplishments. He was not prepared to lose that constant stream of enthusiasm.” The fast, dry inflection Bogosian employs pulls the drama out of seeing their confrontation. A quirky laugh is hardly as enduring in audience’s minds as an emotionally honest scene. Quirkiness quickly becomes an aesthetic that grows tiresome halfway through the 108-minute runtime.

 “Listen Up Philip” is a prime representation of the way film can instantly become uninteresting and self-indulgent when it strays so far visual storytelling to unending dialogue. To this extreme, it can be a jumbled stream of unmemorable words. Perry finds too much fascination in his own words. Perhaps this would work better as a novel or stage play, but on the big screen, it falls flat and meanders to infinity. Mumblecore, be warned. There are surely more interesting stories to explore than those of successful white people complaining and self-loathing.