‘Listen Up Philip’ is a toxic triumph

By Betsy Sharkey

Los Angeles Times

Jason Schwartzman, in “Listen Up Philip,” plays a frosty frothy Faustian Philip Roth-ian narcissist novelist with such an acid tongue you’ll wonder if someone has spirited away the usually sweet, self-deprecating actor and stashed him in a trunk somewhere.

And then you won’t care because the terribly unlikable Philip Lewis Friedman is so brilliantly conceived by indie auteur Alex Ross Perry and so audaciously played by Schwartzman.

While the intolerance fueling this dark existential comedy won’t be to everyone’s liking, the film’s cerebral beat-down is a strange and sardonic thing of beauty.

Perry puts an eclectic ensemble of players around Schwartzman, including Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter and Josephine de La Baume. Eric Bogosian’s soothing and sage narration bookends the film and fills in needed exposition along the way.

Between narrator and the collection of characters who move in and out of Philip’s life, Perry cracks open a very particular can of worms. As we immediately learn, Schwartzman’s emerging artiste head is crammed with the typical literary allusions and illusions of the newly anointed.

It is a distressed place where anger and entitlement battle for supremacy.

It’s a draw.

Philip’s second novel is about to be published and is already generating critical attention. The day is sunny, but Philip isn’t. There are old scores to settle.

Though it is never stated, Philip’s anti-social behavior is certainly flavored by the public persona of the legendary Roth. The Philip of the film petulantly refuses to go on book tour or do press, and he insults the photographer taking his publicity photos. He is a man waging war with the inept humanity he sees everywhere he goes.

Director of photography, Sean Price Williams, who has worked on all of Perry’s films, continues to shoot with a handheld camera. Though perhaps Williams’ time on “Impolex” and “The Color Wheel” has made the hand that holds the camera steadier. Whatever the reason, the technique is more effective in “Listen Up Philip”; the obsession with getting right up in the actors’ faces pays off. Their emotionality seems to jump off the screen.

Moss continues to expand her post-“Mad Men” portfolio in “Philip.” Though the AMC series doesn’t end its final season until next year, Moss is breaking away from the advertising copywriter box of Peggy Olson with incredible ease.

Philip is a substantial tonal shift for Schwartzman. The actor of other existential but more upbeat examinations of the heart and the mind in films such as “Rushmore,” “I Heart Huckabees” and “The Darjeeling Limited,” proves surprisingly facile in the way he dances with the devil. His lack of artifice becomes critical in constructing the literary monster of Philip. Hopefully fans will forgive him for his wonderful awfulness, a green light to tackle other monsters another day.

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