Written and directed by: Alex Ross Perry
When I told a friend that Alex Ross Perry’s recent release Her Smell did not click with me as much as it did with him, he said that was too bad, because it thus wasn’t worth if for him to recommend Ross Perry’s other works to me. At the time I was inclined to disagree, seeing my issue with Her Smell (its being overly focused on one character in a way that limited the nuancing of others around her) as very specific to that one film. In that sense I was wrong. Through watching Listen Up Phillip I saw a common thread between it and Your Smell: one even shared with Ross Perry’s far more mainstream Disney contribution, Christopher Robin. Ross Perry likes to write about characters others would characterize as jerks. In the case of Her Smell, some like myself would perceive this characterization of the protagonist as unfair. In Listen Up Phillip, however, Ross Perry does not portray tropic overworked Dad (as in Christopher Robin) nor does he portray someone whose unpleasantness comes from their having lost control (Her Smell). Rather, protagonist Phillip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is just straight-up unpleasant.
Well, technically, nothing is ever that simple. But Phillip’s self-aware misanthrophy is no doubt the film’s defining feature. Phillip is an up-and-coming author: famous but not (yet?) rich. The film opens with a depiction of him waiting for lunch with an ex-girlfriend. She arrives substantially late, stressing out the anxiety-prone Phillip and driving him to berate her with criticism. In these early moments we’re presented with a brief view into Phillip’s psyche: he appears neurotic rather than a jerk. While this scene provides enough fuel to allow for future interpretation of the character, its brevity appears to be a key part of Ross Perry’s style: he likes to portray “jerks,” a vision which requires making audiences uncomfortable with the characters they’re watching.
Another common quality between Her Smell and Listen Up Phillip is that both are divisible into clear segments (units bigger than scenes). Her Smell offers a clear first act, second act, and extended conclusion. Listen Up Phillip meanwhile opens up being almost exclusively about its protagonist, then cuts to a segment on his newly-ex girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), and thirdly focuses on Phillip’s relationship with an author-mentor (Jonathan Pryce). Perry explained that he took this approach because in his view a good character study requires seeing how a character makes an impact when not in the room. This segmentation is key to Listen Up Phillip’s appeal and liveliness, as it’s a story in which the character development and plot arc are so subtle, one can’t be blamed for missing them. Ross Perry said one of the challenges of writing Christopher Robin was that he had to give it a satisfying ending, a storytelling approach he felt was not in his arsenal when he was writing Listen Up Phillip, etc.
Despite its indie anti-climactism Listen Up Phillip’s array of scenes and roster of significant secondary characters leave it fairly entertaining. The real secret to watching it, however, is to do so with an active mind. Two paragraphs ago I wrote that Ross Perry’s style involves the portrayal of “jerks,” and also that applying such a label to any person is oversimplistic. Indeed, when listening to Ross Perry discussing Listen Up Phillip he doesn’t speak of him as a simplistic figure. He suggests Phillip is someone who acts on a temptation (to be unapologetically angry and solitary) that many have but know to suppress. He also sees him as someone who has an arc, and most importantly, as someone who is a significantly different character from fellow egotistical writer Zimmerman.
One of my favourite moments in Listen Up Phillip comes when Phillip speaks with Zimmerman’s fed-up daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter). Phillip is recounting an unpleasant encounter with an ex-girlfriend. Melanie is usually judgemental towards Phillip who she sees as embodying all she loathes in her father. In this case she remains judgemental, but speaks empathetically saying something along the lines of “people don’t like it when you treat them as disposable.” Its one of the few moment in the film when Phillip seems phased by another’s criticism, and the secret seems to be Melanie’s combination of empathy and logical phrasing. The suggestion of the moment is that caustic people aren’t unchangeable, but that in order to be reached they need to be shown an alternative and desirable way of being. Melanie’s conceptual intelligence appeals to Phillip, whereas her emotional intelligence shows him (however briefly) the error of his ways.
In reviewing Her Smell I said that the film started with its climax and had nowhere to go from there. Listen Up Phillip is perhaps guilty of the same flaw. Perhaps it would have been a stronger film from an entertainment-perspective if it didn’t just depict Phillip as an angry man, but rather showed a different side of him. But conceptually, at least, there’s an advantage to the approach Ross Perry took. He makes you ask, “if Phillip was always this way, could Ashley really have fallen in love with him?” The answer, it seems, is yes, since she loves the idea of his idiosyncracy and assertiveness, even if its hard to deal with in practice. Similarly, Phillip’s misanthrophic consistency allows us to ask “would an up and coming writer with an interest in teaching really be so offputting to his students?” The answer, in this film’s logic, is yes, because the film emphasizes that destructive coping mechanisms don’t fade easily. In short, Listen Up Phillip may not be everyone’s cup of tea as a movie, but Phillip Lewis Friedman (and perhaps Ashley and Ike Zimmerman too) should endure as one of indie cinema’s most memorable figures.