Listen Up Philip ★★★★

Midway through watching this, my girlfriend shuddered audibly. "Remember that John Waters line about how if someone throws up during one of his movies, it's like a standing ovation?" I said. "Well, this is a cringe comedy."

This is a deftly written movie, both on the micro level of lines and punchlines within hostile conversations, and in terms of macro plotting, with character arcs dovetailing or ricocheting across jagged chronologies. Philip's story is one of history repeating itself, as the title character's break-ups echo his own past break-ups as well as those of his mentor Ike, who's tutoring him in the art of being a little shit. Meanwhile, women like Ike's daughter Melanie and Philip's almost-ex-girlfriend Ashley try to break free from the orbits of these toxic men, despite emotional or material dependence. When Ashley succeeds, with relief and incredulity passing over actress Elisabeth Moss's face, it's incredibly cathartic.

Philip and Ike, however, are damned to self-imposed cycles of loneliness and hate. They're terrifying to watch, apart or together, between Jason Schwartzman's eyes, which radiate contempt from beneath his messy brown hair, and the too-plausible bitterness which informs Jonathan Pryce's every word. Both men speak confidently, though Schwartzman speaks faster, in an urgent patter, with an insistently literary diction. Each ends the movie alone, miserable, yet guaranteed lifelong literary success. It's a perverse twist on a moral tales like those of Faust or Dorian Gray, because these men get what they want. Neither craves nor receives redemption. Yet both will be fundamentally unhappy forever, an outcome I find karmically just and unshakably haunting.

Writer-director Alex Ross Perry uses every tool at his disposal to properly aim and deliver this misanthropic dagger to the heart. The film's framed by sardonically pseudo-objective narration read by Eric Bogosian; colored by Keegan DeWitt's melancholy jazz score; and seen through the oft-handheld 16mm photography of Sean Price Williams, which forces the viewer into a series of uncomfortable intimacies. The antagonistic techniques of Perry and his collaborators render Listen Up Philip a complacency-free zone, and though the film's a consistently shudder-inducing experience, it also imparts truths about artists, relationships, and lives led without empathy. Here's a rock sharply thrown at a bust of the Great Male Author; let's hope it leaves a dent.

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