To say that Philip Lewis Friedman is a flawed protagonist would be an understatement. If I were to say such a thing, it would hardly be surprising - “flawed” protagonists are arguably the most popular sort of protagonists these days. You know, the cop who's great at his job despite his inability to maintain a successful relationship, or the doctor who saves lives despite a troubling dependency on prescription pills. Beyond that, we have flawed protagonists who are genuinely reprehensible for a portion of the running time, but eventually make an effort to change their ways and find some sort of redemption. Think Denzel Washington in Flight, or Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. Then we have flawed protagonists who never really change their ways at all, but are nonetheless fun to watch – see Tony Montana or Jordan Belfort. Beyond all of those categories, we have someone like Philip, who is simply a terrible, thoroughly unpleasant person. We're told he's a great writer, though he's often the one telling us. He is self-absorbed, misogynistic, petty and cruel – when he isn't writing, he largely devotes his intellect to finding ways to deliver crippling emotional blows to those closest to him.
When we first meet Philip (Jason Schwartzman, I Heart Huckabees), he's just published his first novel (to great acclaim, of course) and is attempting to determine how best to advance his career. He seeks advice from Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce, Brazil), an older and considerably more accomplished novelist. Ike's arrogance rivals Philip's, but he recognizes talent when he sees it and takes the budding writer under his wing. Meanwhile, Philip fumbles his way through a series of romantic relationships – well, one can hardly call them romantic – and quickly begins to assert himself as a significant figure in the literary world.
Schwartzman seems like a genial, pleasant guy in real life, but few people are better at playing self-absorbed douchebags, and his turn as Philip (modeled on the famously testy and reclusive Philip Roth) marks the apex of his work in that department. In Philip, we see the sort of man Max Fischer might have become as an adult; an overconfident (but talented) jerk with no regard for anything but his own reputation. Certain viewers will likely find the idea of spending an entire film with this character unbearable, but the film regards him through a wise, wary lens. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry incorporates narration from Eric Bogosian, whose deliberately abrasive Talk Radio character shares quite a few things in common with Philip. The narration isn't used to advance the plot or to fill gaps, but to provide occasional moments of puncturing insight. The final lines in particular have an appropriate ruthlessness: they're so cold and unforgiving that we suspect Philip himself might have written them.
The most interesting examination of Philip occurs when the character is hardly onscreen. A sizable chunk of the film's midsection abandons our protagonist almost entirely and focuses on Ashley (Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men), Philip's girlfriend. She isn't his only girlfriend, mind you, but she's his girlfriend, and she's put up with a great deal of spitefulness from him for a very long time. When he spends some time away from her for professional and personal reasons, she slowly but surely begins to blossom. Moss is such a distinctive, gifted actress, and she nearly walks away with the film. In her restored happiness and contentment, we see what a toxic effect Philip's mere presence has caused. The Supremes' classic “I Hear a Symphony” is featured over the closing credits, and after all we've witnessed, it plays like an ironic, world-weary lament.
Ike also provides an indirect way of looking at Philip, as he serves as a premonition of the man Philip is likely to become (and perhaps, a portrait of the man Philip Roth has become). We see him grant smug, condescending advice to his protege, and we see Philip respond in kind to those he deems beneath him (which is pretty much everyone other than Ike). Ike sees Philip making the same mistakes he made during his early years, but rather than attempting to give the younger writer guidance on how to avoid those mistakes, Ike merely boasts about how much more skillfully he handled the consequences. Listen Up Philip is a smart movie aimed at a smart audience, but in its display of heartbreak and cruelty, it firmly emphasizes the importance of basic human decency over intellectual prowess. For what does it profit a man if he gains the Pulitzer and yet forfeits his ability to love and be loved?
Listen Up Philip
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 2014