In Listen Up Philip, there all sorts of throwaway details and little lines of dialogue that capture the suffocating narcissism of Philip Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), the thirtysomething novelist at the movie’s center. Among the most telling? The fact that he can have a serious conversation trying to decide if he’s more of a “notable” author or a “noteworthy” one.
Such characters usually don’t strike me as either notable or noteworthy. Even if they’re meant as self-critiques of a sort, movies about insufferable narcissists frequently come across as another form of self-indulgence. Thank goodness, then, that writer-director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel) is not only able to draw out one of Schwartzman’s most human performances, but he’s also willing to open his film up into something of a triptych, so that the story considers both Philip’s girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) and the aging novelist (Jonathan Pryce) who wants to become his mentor.
In fact, the novelistic voiceover narration (delivered in nature-documentary tones by Eric Bogosian) switches gears about halfway through to describe Ashley for a bit, then Ike. The result is more than an extra meta layer. (Is Philip inventing these moments for a future novel?) It also allows, in the Ashley segments in particular, some observations about female loneliness to break into the otherwise masculine navel-gazing.
And thank goodness, because Moss is spectacular, both as a foil for Philip and as the one who must get us to see his charming side. It all comes together in a bravura close-up, just after Ashley has kicked Philip out of their apartment. The brave front on her face collapses the moment the door closes behind him, giving way to a second or two of wide-eyed panic. She then lets out a centering breath, followed by a little smile and nod of self-encouragement. Yet all along the tears have been building, and they come. She’s just not sure, and we in the audience couldn’t understand her uncertainty any better.