Is it necessary that audiences identify in some way with the main character in a movie? Does a fictional protagonist have to be likable for a film to succeed? These questions are pushed to their limit by uber-indie Brooklyn filmmaker Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip. The title character is a talented and newly successful 32-year-old novelist (Jason Schwartzman) who may be the most narcissistic, self-absorbed and casually cruel leading man ever depicted on film. It's a small miracle that Listen Up Philip manages to engage us at all. But those with the wherewithal to stick it out may find a perceptive black comedy with many hard truths at its core.
Literary success has made Philip bitter. The movie begins with a series of brief encounters in which he savages old friends and lovers for supposedly not believing in him when he needed it most. (Later, an ex-girlfriend literally runs away from him as fast as she can.) Schwartzman is known for his quirky and often endearing turns in five of Wes Anderson's best-loved films, and he has just enough charisma to make us hope Philip will learn to listen, but not enough to make us like him.
Foremost among Ross' cinematic weapons is the will to leave his protagonist behind for long sequences as the film shifts focus to Philip's thoughtful girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men) and his new mentor Ike (Jonathan Pryce), a fading literary star who's just as horrible as Philip. The fresh perspectives work wonders, especially since Moss and Pryce come through with performances that hold up to the film's consistent use of extreme close-ups to tell its story.
The actors get some breathing room from the film's heavy reliance on narration delivered with alarming authority by playwright and monologist Eric Bogosian. The voice-overs are packed with detailed information about the characters' inner lives and give us a lot to think about in a short period of time. They provide a foundation on which the actors can build, but it takes some time to trust their directness. Remove the narration and the movie would become shapeless, and the insights on human nature too hard-won to be enjoyable.
In a trend so prevalent it's starting to characterize the year in film, Ross and cinematographer Sean Price Williams use grainy 16 mm film, shaky handheld camerawork and a pale color palette to specifically recall the work of independent New Hollywood filmmakers from the 1970s, ranging from John Cassavetes to Robert Altman. Listen Up Philip is steeped in relatively recent film history. If only we could watch it on VHS cassette.