Good Writers, Horrible People

'Listen Up Philip' follows a couple of assholes (and is one of the best movies of the year)

Listen Up Philip is so good and willing to be disliked that I have to ask: Writer and director Alex Ross Perry, where have you been all my life? Finally, there’s a movie that has the courage to let an asshole character remain an asshole from beginning to end. In fact, there’s a second asshole character who remains an asshole in the end. MY GOD, IT’S A CORNUCOPIA OF ASSHOLES.

For those of us who were sorely disappointed that St. Vincent is marked by a sentimentality that takes an intriguing premise—asshole neighbor babysits a kid—and turns it into jelly, please see Listen Up Philip. There’s nothing resembling studio appeasement happening or chickenshit screenwriting here.

Granted, outright assholery is not for everyone (I wonder how many times I can use the word “asshole” in the review?), and those who don’t like prickly characters, even if they’re used for comic effect, should stay away. On its face, Listen Up Philip should be completely unlikeable, but there’s a mastery to its storytelling, Perry’s use of language, and all the performances are perfect. Who knew a Coppola (Jason Schwartzman) had it in him to be simultaneously repulsive and totally mesmerizing?

Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman) is on the verge of having his new novel published, and aside from The New York Times, advance word is good. One afternoon while waiting for an ex-girlfriend to meet him for lunch, her tardiness inspires him to launch into a tirade against her that makes him feel better than he’s felt in years.

Egged on by his self-satisfaction, Philip meets his old roommate, and similarly rips him a new asshole. Philip—who has clearly always been something of a jerk—decides, though not explicitly, to keep speaking completely openly and honestly.

Philip’s second book wins him a fan in Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce, absolutely wonderful), a transparently Philip Roth-esque writer (and total douche bag, a sort of older version of Philip), and the two men form a quick friendship. Ike asks Philip to spend time at his country house, and Philip accepts. 

The country trip leaves Philip’s girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) hanging, and sends their relationship down a long path from which it doesn’t recover. But at least this movie full of asshole men gives Ashley her own story, apart from Philip, and makes clear he’s the real loser in this situation. Plus, Moss pulls off one of those rare actorly feats; she lets an entire series of emotions run across her face without saying a word. Her performance here may be her best yet.

Kudos to Perry for letting Listen Up Philip run with its two irredeemable jerks—Ike has a fraught relationship with his daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter, showing some chops) that proves he’s a terrible father, while Philip starts teaching at an upstate college and alienates everyone—and for letting the movie be darkly funny. These two writers are narcissistic, shallow, self-loathing, out-of-touch dicks, but there’s enough humor to not make you want to murder anyone on screen. It’s quite an accomplishment, and maybe one of the best movies of the year.


Directed by Alex Ross Perry
With Schwartzman, Pryce and Moss
CCA Cinematheque
109 min.
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