Alex Ross Perry’s new film loses audience in artistic overload

By Devon Shuman, For The Miami Student

The world of film is filled with overly arrogant characters, characters that are so selfish and hurtful that practically everything out of their mouth aims to put down those around them. Think of Stifler from the “American Pie” series, or John Goodman’s Walter from “The Big Lebowski.”

However, as common as this archetype has become, few movies attempt to put one of these characters in the role of the protagonist — and perhaps for good reason.

Enter Jason Schwartzman (“Rushmore,” “Moonrise Kingdom”) as the title character in Alex Ross Perry’s third film, “Listen Up Philip.” Philip, a writer awaiting the release of his second novel, is not just a depiction of arrogance; he is the epitome. He is an image of everything you can hate in a person — pretentious, conceited, egotistical and, above all, selfish. As Philip says to his girlfriend Ashley, played by Elisabeth Moss, before abruptly leaving for the summer to spend time at a country retreat, “This will be good for both of us, but mostly it will be good for me.”

Philip spends the first portion of the movie bragging and shoving his new novel in the face of everyone he once called a friend, making it hard to imagine how an audience could ever sympathize with such a horrible human specimen. Yet, Schwartzman comes to the rescue, giving his character just the right amount of depth to make us enjoy watching him. While we might not ultimately root for him, Schwartzman’s mastery of deadpan humor and sarcasm makes Philip a character we love to hate.

In the absence of a traditional rise-and-fall plot structure, “Listen Up Philip” acts more as a character study, a glimpse into the troubled mind of a self-destructive artist. Torn between love and loathing — of himself, of his work, of his girlfriend — Philip falls into a pattern of isolation and self-alienation, systematically ruining all his relationships and hurting those around him in the process.

Splitting the film into three acts, Perry follows each character individually, beginning with Philip, moving on to Ashley, and finishing with Ike Zimmerman, an older author who, seeing his younger self in Philip, begins to spend time with him in an attempt to impart some wisdom. Despite a wonderful performance from Moss, who brings just as much to the table here as she does on “Mad Men,” the first two acts become slow and repetitive. They are nothing more than a chance for Philip to throw out some egotistically witty one-liners.

Where the movie really picks up steam is in the third act. Ironically, the heart of the movie lies not in Philip’s story, but in that of his mentor. Ike, played by Jonathan Pryce (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), at first seems to be an accomplished, old writer.

However, as we delve deeper into his personal life we see that he is still just like Philip — alienated as a result of his own arrogant ways. The ever-deteriorating relationship with his daughter, played by Krysten Ritter (“Breaking Bad”), is actually the movie’s most heart-wrenching storyline.

The splitting of the film into separate acts has an air of Wes Anderson to it, and in fact, so does the whole movie. Perry seems to have taken inspiration from the master of idiosyncrasy. Everything about the film, from the omniscient narrator to the jazzy French score to the grainy 16mm shots, is reminiscent of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” This is a film about an artist, and it is indeed quite artsy.

Ultimately, this is where Perry loses us. He gets so bogged down in his creative techniques that he loses focus on the story itself. With far too many close-up shots, the movie becomes claustrophobic, and the narration is simply unnecessary. We don’t need to be told that Ike is depressed; we can see that as he solemnly gazes out the window.

There is a great story in here somewhere. Unfortunately, it becomes suffocated by fancy cinematography and directorial techniques. In the end, “Listen Up Philip” fails because it ends up being just as pretentious and self-destructive as its miserable protagonist.