Fifteen years ago, we saw Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and with it, Jason Schwartzman. He was Max Fischer, a charming white high-school playwright whose selfishness and thinly veiled misanthropy corrupted and destroyed his numerous friendships and relationships. At the end of the movie, Schwartzman’s Max performatively works to make good on all the bad he’s done, and is celebrated for it: Anderson ends with a shot of Max and his gang dancing the night away in long shot, all of them organized lyrically within the same frame. It’s a deeply moving visual conceit—but was it an honest one? Schwartzman’s latest role suggests otherwise.
Listen Up Philip, the third movie from filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, sees Schwartzman once again play a charming white writer constantly set back, personally and professionally, by his own hateful barbs. As Philip Lewis Friedman—a young author awaiting the imminent publication of his second novel—Schwartzman goes full sociopath, unleashing insults towards his friends and loved ones in rapid monologues, as if they were Marx Bros. punchlines. “Success has made you ugly,” an ex tells him. “I think you’ve gotten far too in touch with your selfish instincts.” Philip rebukes her too, but only half-heartedly: He knows she’s right.
Schwartzman’s Philip is the focus of Perry’s movie, but that doesn’t mean he’s the main character. Perry’s urban epic complicates itself profoundly by making time for passages profiling Philip’s girlfriend, his mentor, and his woman-on-the-side, tying all the strands together with highly verbose narration read by Woburn-born playwright Eric Bogosian. Fades to black and a jazzy score (Keegan DeWitt) serve as chapter breaks. When the title card for the movie shows up, you’ll note that it’s in the same font as Philip Roth’s ’70s works, novels like Portnoy’s Complaint and When She Was Good. Perry earns his allusion: Philip has a literary expanse.
And yet the visual language is anything but flowery. The frames shake violently whenever Philip’s on screen. The color palette grows chillier as the film moves along, as if the character’s self-destructive brainwaves are throwing the image off-kilter. And Perry’s camera continually hangs, in long takes, on women left in the wake of Philip’s madness, their eyes set in disbelief at the extent of his self-serving nature. By the end of the film, Shwartzman is alone in Perry’s compositions too, flanked by steel blue lighting to match his self-righteously icy demeanor. His eponymous film has turned on him—has morphed to match his worldview.
Philip argues (possibly unconsciously, but quite comprehensively all the same) that Rushmore’s Max didn’t deserve the dance-hall ending Anderson granted him, but rather melancholic isolation. Perry’s realization is that the Maxes of the world, in an era of growing sociological awareness, don’t deserve the love of the caring individuals they terrorize—instead, they deserve to spend their whole life trudging uphill, finding struggle in every relationship rather than support.
At once humanist and grotesque, elegant and acidic, Listen Up Philip cuts down an entire culture of self-mythologizing white male creators, one often propagated and immortalized by literature such as that written by Roth and films such as those directed by Anderson. He may be able to turn a phrase—but a narcissistic asshole is still a narcissistic asshole.