To say that Jason Schwartzman isn’t a chameleon is one hell of an understatement, but that’s what makes his best performances so affecting. One of the few acclaimed actors who seems to talk and act exactly like himself in every role, he speaks with a casual entitlement and perpetual disingenuousness that’s complicated by an underlining air of self-reflexive mockery. He’s an odd dude to pin down, because though he never appears to take himself – or anything else – too seriously, he also constantly foregrounds his own intellectualism.
Like a preternaturally gifted 14-year-old, he’s extremely articulate and verbose but also all-too-willing to look like a buffoon, as long as the buffoonery only happens his own terms. Even when he’s acting like a goofball he never places himself in a position where the audience can feel superior to him; he indulges in idiocy for his own amusement first and foremost, and wields a weird power in his intimidating detachment, as if he’s always in on a private joke the viewer isn’t privy to.
Every tic registers as a clear gesture; transparently the artificial product of careful thought rather than something spontaneous. For all his strengths, he has great difficulty when it comes to blending into the particular emotional and tonal fabric of a film, which often makes it seem like he’s occupying a completely different project to the actors surrounding him. This natural sore-thumb quality makes him pretty great at off-beat comedy (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Bored to Death, I Heart Hukabees) and pretty terrible at sentimental drama (see the aggressively treacly Saving Mr Banks, in which he almost seems like he’s playing his role sarcastically).
But where Schwartzman shines is when he’s working with a director who makes these contradictions in his persona central to the character he’s playing and, by extension, uses it to modulate the tone and tenor of the film around him. In these films, rather than allowing Schwartzman to work against the current of the project as he usually does, the entire project seems to be in dialogue with Schwartzman’s persona.
It’s difficult to tell where performance ends and mise-and-scene begins; cutting and framing seem to be orchestrated perfectly in tandem with his bizarre verbal and gestural rhythms. When I say this, what I have in mind are the two (in my opinion) masterpieces he’s anchored – Rushmore and Listen Up Philip. Non-coincidentally, both Wes Anderson and Alex Ross Perry are intense formalists who also put a lot of stock in the actors they work with: Anderson reportedly undertook an obsessive audition process that involved trying out 1,800 teenagers, and I can’t imagine his excitement when the then-unknown Schwartzman waltzed into the room; up until Philip, Perry had been making micro-budget features that mostly featured his close friends in roles he developed specifically with them in mind, where he wasn’t playing the roles himself.
One of my favourite Schwartzman moments towards the end of Listen Up Philip. Be warned – mild spoilers ahead, not that the power of Listen Up Philip lies in the unfolding of its plot-points.
Philip and his newfound linguistic professor girlfriend Yvette are staying at the country home of Philip’s misanthropic mentor/kindred spirit Ike. After suffering through a dinner table conversation full of put-downs from both of them, she retreats to Ike’s spare room. Philip follows her, and, after hearing that she’s planning to leave, he relates to her the story of the death of both his parents and his unborn sibling in a car accident when he was a child. On paper, this sounds like a cliché, even hokey scene, straight out of the Sy Field Script guide: late in the film, the main character reveals some tragic event in his past that at once contextualizes and excuses all their flaws. This revelation then paves the way for the character’s redemption. However, the way it’s scripted by Perry and performed by Schwartzman, it becomes something much stranger.
It’s transformed into the moment that definitely damns Philip in the eyes of both Yvette and the audience. Why is this? Because there’s a studied remove and emotionless flippancy in Philip’s voice that suggests one of two things: either Philip is fabricating this entirely as a feeble way of avoiding a confrontation and shrugging off his near-constant cruelty (by this point, it’s hard to put it past him); or else – perhaps even more disconcertingly – he’s distanced himself from his feelings to such a degree that even recalling his past traumas stirs no reaction in him other than a desire to use them to one-up Yvette’s sadness.
Up until this point, the character’s habit of using self-deflective humour as a way of mentally distancing himself from potential emotional pain has been – despite the negative effects it’s had on those close to him – portrayed as pretty funny and endearing, but here the tragic depths of his insularity and inner numbness asserts itself irrevocably and, though the movie reprises it’s comic demeanour once the scene has ended, it’s impossible to laugh with him; every caustic joke he makes only seems to tighten the noose round his neck. It’s one of those rare moments where the established sensibilities of an actor and a director meld seamlessly and fruitfully to create an extra layer of thematic depth.