‘Listen Up Philip’: A creep who fascinates as he infuriates

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All those years when all those fans of J.D. Salinger would make the pilgrimage to Cornish, New Hampshire, hoping to get a glimpse of the famously reclusive author to tell him what “The Catcher in the Rye” meant to them, I always wondered:

Why? Why would you want to bother a guy who almost certainly is going to tell you to take a hike (unless you happened to be a very young, very pretty girl catching him at the right moment)? The book meant to you what it meant to you. Why spoil it by chancing a sour encounter with the author?

In “Listen Up Philip,” Jason Schwartzman is the titular character, who achieves some success with his first two novels and thus is invited to meet the great Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a literary lion who now lives in an exodus of his own making, drinking his 25-year-old scotch and railing about all the sycophants and nobodies who betrayed him.

“The greatest achievement of their lives is they knew me,” says Zimmerman, and he really believes that.

From the wonderfully mocked-up covers of Zimmerman’s novels, it’s clear he’s modeled not after Salinger but Philip Roth. (We also have the young author, Philip, and “Zimmerman” evokes Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman.)

Zimmerman is a bitter old man, refusing to take responsibility for any of his human failings, constantly calling his daughter (Krysten Ritter) a “pain in the ass.” But he takes an instant liking to Philip, mainly because Philip is a young Zimmerman — arrogant, off-putting, self-absorbed and capable of casual cruelty to anyone who gets close to him.

Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, “Listen Up Philip” looks like the kind of movie film classes would study in the 1970s. Perry swings his hand-held camera so close to the faces of the actors it feels like he might clip one of them in the nose. Narrator Eric Bogosian has a wonderful, offbeat and almost cheerful delivery as he details the latest horrible behavior by Philip or Zimmerman, to the point where we’re rooting for the women in their lives to pack up their dignity and run. Run!

Philip is one of the most unlikable but also one of the most fascinating characters of the year. Schwartzman is an expert at playing whip-smart, socially awkward misfits who seem incapable of being in the moment. Even when he’s saying “that’s great” to his girlfriend, he feels compelled to tell her she doesn’t understand him and how he feels right then and there. Another time, when a student shyly asks him for a letter of recommendation for an internship, he tells her why he won’t do it while he staples a blank piece of paper, and he concludes the conversation by saying, “Here’s a piece of paper with staples in it.” OK.

When Philip achieves his greatest success, he uses the opportunity to meet with a former college girlfriend to tell her she never believed in him, and with his former roommate to tell him he was supposed to do great things as well, and what the hell happened? (The punch line to that second encounter is a little bit sick and really funny.)

Elisabeth Moss is heartbreakingly effective as a commercial photographer who has been with Philip for three years. We don’t know what she was like before she met him, but she is broken now, and she’s reaching deep into the recesses of her soul to come back. Ritter and Pryce have a devastating confrontation in which she finally gets to tell him how the world sees him. Bogosian’s matter-of-fact narration sometimes tells us more about these characters’ lives than they yet know themselves, and it all rings true and sometimes it’s almost unbearably sad.

[s3r star=3/4]

Tribeca Film presents a film written and directed by Alex Ross Perry. Running time: 109 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Music Box and available now on demand.

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