In my first post for this blog on the subject of The Overnight (Patrick Brice, 2015), I claimed that the film was a showcase for “pure, unadulterated Jason Schwartzman.” I’d now like to formally redact that statement; in light of Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry, 2014), The Overnight is more what I’d think of like Jason Schwartzman unleashed, proving what comedic extremity he is capable of achieving while remaining utterly himself (much in the same way as David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) showcased the comparable talents of Nicholas Cage). Philip, on the other hand, is pure Schwartzman all the way. In a part that could only succeed in his capable, straight-faced, self-important hands, Philip’s character seems like a seamless and totally natural continuation of Max Fischer, the equally blank and big-headed young student who launched Schwartzman’s acting career in Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998).
As an unbelievably self-absorbed novelist who frequently admits to his intentional detachment from those around him, Philip is a pitch-perfect portrayal of the male writer-type who seems to be both obnoxiously aware of his surroundings and situation and yet painfully, maddeningly lacking this awareness toward himself. (“I’m really trying to do my best up here,” he tells one of his students at one point, “and part of that means not getting involved with anybody in, say, a human way.”) Often reminiscent of Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959), part of—if not the—foundation of American indie cinema, and followed by an omniscient narrator to drive home the satire of the whole thing and give each character their moment to function as the protagonist of their own story, Philip takes cues from, subverts, and lampoons the New York art scene. While most of Philip’s antics seem too absurdly comical to imagine in reality, though, the ensemble of women affected by the film’s central focus on white-male-creative-intellectual narcissism (including terrific performances from Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, and Joséphine de La Baume) acts as a mirror to audiences, as we observe with increasing incredulity the boundless depths of Philip’s conceit.
The point of the film becomes crystallized with the character of Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), Philip’s idol and, essentially, his mirror of destiny. Both men complain incessantly about the difficulty of their work and the criticism they face from the women in their lives, reassuring themselves and each other of their importance as everyone else learns to give up on trying to make them see the error of their ways. Channeling aspects of Don Draper and his Italian predecessor, Guido Anselmi—taking the self-interest, creative bravado, and perpetual string of various female relationships, while more or less abandoning all their anxiety and despair—to a level of caricature, the connection between Ike and Philip is ultimately as barren and insular as their connection to themselves.