“You are selfish and unsentimental.” “You say that like it was a bad thing.” “On the contrary.” Philip Friedman (Jason Schwartzman, left) is tutored on how to be a great novelist by his literary idol, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) in Alex Ross Perry’s darkly satirical film about the writing life, Listen Up Philip.
It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago---I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman---when I arrived at his hideaway to greet the great man. The clapboard farmhouse was at the end of an unpaved road twelve hundred feet up in the Berkshires, yet the figure who emerged from the study to bestow a ceremonious greeting wore a gabardine suit, a knitted blue tie clipped to a white shirt by an unadorned silver clasp, and well-brushed ministerial black shoes that made me think of him stepping down from a shoeshine stand rather than from the high altar of art. Before I had composure enough to notice the commanding, autocratic angle at which he held his chin, or the regal, meticulous, rather dainty care he took to arrange his clothes before sitting---to notice anything, really, other than that I had miraculously made it from my unliterary origins to here, to him---my impression was that E.I. Lonoff looked more like the local superintendent of schools than the region’s most original storyteller since Melville and Hawthorne.
---from the The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth.
Ike Zimmerman, the literary hero of Philip Friedman, the young novelist who’s the protagonist of the clever and darkly satirical (but seemingly deliberately unfunny) pseudo-documentary portrait of writers as bitter young and old men, Listen Up Philip, the best adaptation of a Philip Roth novel that Roth hasn’t written, doesn’t make as distinguished, dignified, and gentlemanly first impression as as E.I. Lonoff makes upon young Nathan Zuckerman in Roth’s The Ghost Writer. Ike is not meticulous about his dress or his manners. He’s rumpled, irritable, overbearing and demanding rather than commanding. Autocratic is both too harsh and too mild a word to describe his particular sort of domestic tyrant. And there’s no mistaking him for anything but a writer. But as soon as Ike invites Philip to come visit him at his house in the country, where a mysterious and alluring young woman awaits to capture Philip’s imagination, the parallels and allusions, and parallels and allusions within the parallels and allusions, are made clear.
The ghost writer, ghost writers, of Listen Up Philip are Roth and his many literary alter-egos whose spirits haunt the plot from beginning to end.
The game is given away graphically early on and throughout, in the lettering style of the credits and in the glimpses of the covers of some of Ike’s early books which recreate the covers of the novels Roth published in the 1970s that made him a bestselling novelist with a salacious reputation, The Breast, My Life as A Man, Our Gang, The Great American Novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, the paperback editions of which I bought when I was a kid deciding it was time for me to read what the grownups were reading. But you can’t name one of your novelist main characters Philip and the other a near-homophone to Zuckerman and then have them re-enact part of the plot of The Ghost Writer without bringing Philip Roth and his novels and characters into your movie about the trials and tribulations of the literary life in a significant and signifying way.
Philip (Jason Schwartzman) isn’t an exact stand-in for a young Philip Roth or even a young Nathan Zuckerman. He’s too unfocused, too undisciplined, and, I hope, too unlikeable. And if Ike (Jonathan Pryce) is an older version of Zuckerman, it depends on which Nathan Zuckerman you’re talking about.
But since all the Zuckermans are alter-egos for Philip Roth, except for the Zuckerman of My Life as a Man, who’s an alter-ego for that novel’s “author”, the writer Peter Tarnopol, but who is himself an alter-ego for Roth, it doesn’t matter which. At one, two, or three removes, Ike is a stand-in for Philip Roth.
But then that depends on which Philip Roth. Philip Roth has used Philip Roth as a stand-in for Philip Roth.
The question is, is Ike a fictionalized version of Philip Roth or a fictionalized version of Philip Roth’s fictionalized version of Philip Roth?
And even though Philip isn’t much like Philip Roth or Nathan Zuckerman he is a younger double of Ike which makes him a double of a double for Roth.
So who’s who and who’s what?
This ambiguity of identity and the questions it raises about the relationship between a writer and his fiction and between fiction and real life are concepts that amused Roth throughout the middle period of his career and he used them as central conceits in My Life As a Man, the Zuckerman Bound series, Deception, The Counterlife, and Operation Shylock. (The Zuckerman who narrates the later trilogy of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain lives in a different and more conventional, less meta- literary universe.) This is why I called Listen Up Philip an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel that Philip Roth happened not to write. He might have written one like it: a sequel to The Ghost Writer (instead of the sequel he did write, Exit Ghost, or in addition to it), in which Nathan Zuckerman finds himself reliving an important episode from his past only this time instead of being the young writer looking at his possible future self, he’s the old writer looking on in horror and dread as a version of himself as a young man verges on throwing away his chance to have a career like the old man’s by becoming prematurely too much like the old man himself.
The question is, who’s the intended audience for this? Who goes to the movies for an hour and half of literary exegesis?
People like me, I suppose, the more than casual readers of contemporary non-genre fiction, religious readers of the New York Times Book Reviews, enthusiastic attendees of author readings and book signings, followers of the latest trends, fads, feuds, and spats among the literati. We’re the most likely to get it, to recognize, for example, that a novelist rival of Philip’s, a poseur and a phony and possibly a hack, has been given Jonathan Franzen’s glasses and David Foster Wallace’s fate and find that funny in a it’d be too cruel to laugh way, and to get a kick out of trying to identify which books of Ike’s are references to which books of Roth’s.
Also fans of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. I’ll get to that.
And fans of Jason Schwartzman and Bored to Death. I’ll get to that too.
But Listen Up Philip is more than just an extended in-joke for fans of Philip Roth in particular and contemporary fiction an observers of the current literary scene in general.
In fact, it may be too much for them to take, because its writer characters are appalling.
If you want to think well of writers and dream wistfully of the writing life, Listen Up Philip is not your movie.
Both Philip and Ike are mean, bitter, jealous, gratuitously insulting---and because they’re writers and brilliant with words their insults are smart, witty, and devastatingly exact---emotionally abusive, destructive, deliberately hurtful towards everyone around them (except each other), self-sabotaging, and pathologically self-absorbed.
They’re also tremendous bores.
When Philip arrives at Ike’s house in the country, the mysterious and alluring young woman there to meet him isn’t a contemporary version of Ann Frank or someone Philip can make fictional hay with by pretending to convince himself she’s Ann Frank. She’s simply Ike’s estranged daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) who immediately recognizes the basis of the affinity between the old and the young writers and how they complement and double each other.
Speaking of her father she says to Philip, “I’m glad he’s replaced himself with a younger surrogate to handle the forlorn moping.”
It’s an old, old story: artists and writers set on self-destruct. How many movies, plays, and novels have been about some talented but tormented genius coming to wrack and ruin through booze, through drugs, through romantic misadventure, by being spoiled by fame, by being broken by failure? But I can’t think of another movie in which the artist-hero sets out to destroy himself simply by being relentlessly, insistently, childishly, perversely, and repetitively just himself.
Who wants to sit through one hundred and nine minutes of that?
People like me again, I suppose. Neurotic intellectual-types with unrealized literary ambitions who are grateful to be told it’s ok to sneer at ourselves for ever having wanted to be like that but who can’t sneer because we were like that and probably still are. We’re the people most likely to be horrified by the film in the way someone will be horrified by a photo of himself he thinks is grotesquely unflattering but which all his friends tell him is the best picture of him ever taken, the one most like him.
We want to see ourselves and our literary heroes caricatured as vain and pretentious, moral, intellectual, and artistic frauds. Listen Up Philip provides Schadenfreude for the self-infatuated. It’s a mirror held up to those for whom self-loathing is practically our default emotion and---truthfully?---a form of self-love.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Probably it’s me.
Anticipating the approaching publication of his second novel, which he knows to be a creative leap forward from his first and has good reason to think will be a commercial and critical success, Philip Friedman---Philip Lewis Friedman. He insists people use his middle name not as if there might be another Philip Friedman he doesn’t want to be confused with or as if leaving out the Lewis was akin to mispronouncing Philip or Friedman, but as if correcting them on a matter of fact they shouldn’t need to have corrected and that they do can only mean they’re stupid---has been seized by an existential despair. It doesn’t matter how good the novel is or how successful it will be or make him. It won’t be enough because he has discerned a central truth about the world.
Nobody, not even his girlfriend---especially, he thinks, not his girlfriend---cares enough to put him at the center of their private universes.
Where he’s come to doubt he belongs anyway.
In his anger, he’s lashing out, as only the most morbidly narcissistic and passive-aggressive can, by sabotaging his relationships with his girlfriend, his best friend, his editor and agent, other writers who might be valued colleagues, and with his own writing (by not writing).
Philip’s grievance with the world stems from his not having accepted a central fact about the life of an artist.
If you’re lucky you’ll have some true believers among your family and friends. They’ll support you and encourage you and love what you do. They’ll cheer your success and cry with you over your failures.
If you’re lucky in another way, someone important to you will be overtly hostile to your dreams and ambitions. They’ll dismiss your work, deny you have the talent or the character or the ability to make your own luck. They’ll make you want to show them and keep on showing them. They’ll drive you on with their doubt.
But most people you care about and who you thought cared about you will be worse than indifferent.
They won’t even notice you’re doing what you’re doing.
You’ll tell them about your latest success and it’ll just remind them to tell you, “Did you hear about cousin Sue’s daughter? She made the volleyball team.” Confess your frustration, lament a failure, express self-doubt and they’ll reply, “I had to take the cat to the vet the other day. Something in his eye,” not as if the cat is as important as your problems and pains or even more important, but as if you haven’t said anything about your problems and pains but instead asked about the cat, as if the cat was the only thing that could be important to you. It’ll be as if there’s nothing going on in your life and you have nothing to occupy your time or thoughts but what’s going on in their lives. It would be arrogant to say they become a waste of your time, but it’d also be inaccurate. What happens is they act as if your job is to let them waste your time, because you have so much time to waste. They’ll only ever discuss art or literature with you is when they want to let you know what a great book by somebody else they just read or about a fascinating interview they saw on TV with somebody else or how they heard that a painting, again by somebody else, somebody you know to be second-rate, sold for gobs and gobs of money.
It’ll be as if they’re denying to themselves you are an artist and are insisting you let them deny it to the point of denying it to yourself. You won’t be allowed to think of yourself as an artist around them. You won’t be able to work around them.
And because they’re people who are important to you and you care about them and what they think, you will start to wonder if they’re right, if the reason they won’t acknowledge what you are and what you do is that it’s not worth acknowledging, and not because you’re not good at what you’re trying to do, although there’s that, but because you’re not really doing anything. There’s nothing for them to acknowledge.
And if you don’t get away from these people, if you can’t put them out of your head, more and more you will act as if you aren’t doing anything by…not doing anything.
Philip can’t get away from people like this or put them out of his head. They’re everywhere he goes and everywhere he will ever go and everyone he knows and will ever meet.
But he has another, more serious problem.
It’s hard for anyone to care about his work because it’s hard for anyone to care about him.
As I said earlier, Philip is appalling. Mean, bitter, spiteful, gratuitously insulting and emotionally abusive. He’s impossible to please. As soon as he likes or begins to enjoy something, he decides to hate it. This happens with him with people too. And his own writing.
Philip acts like many a successful artist, as if great talent is a license to be selfish, self-serving, demanding, entitled to deference and adoration, to act like a spoiled, self-important jerk. The thing with him, though, it’s not an act. He actually is a jerk. He knows this about himself, too, but refuses to try to change on the grounds that it might get in the way of his being a writer. But it’s not his writing that seems important to him and needs protecting, it’s his freedom to be a jerk. It’s seems likely that became a writer because it would give him the freedom to be a jerk.
On top of this, he’s paranoid.
Philip suspects he’s not a very good writer. Not that he’s bad. Not that he’s mediocre. Not that he isn’t good. Just not very good, as in destined for greatness. This causes him to wonder if he might be a fraud, since his whole professional life has been built on the premise that he’s destined for greatness. So he’s on the lookout for signs that people don’t think of him as a writer and don’t care about his work. And he finds those signs in everyone and then he gets angry at them, both for their stupidity in failing to appreciate his genius and for causing him to doubt himself.
But, by the same token, he gets angry at anyone who does seem to appreciate his genius or expresses admiration for his published work. He treats them as if in telling him how much they like his writing they’ve confessed to an unpardonable sin. He maliciously leads on a beautiful young assistant at his publisher’s who has a crush on him and then rejects her in mid-kiss. He refuses to even try to make friends with his colleagues at the college where Ike has secured him a gig teaching creative writing, apparently on the Groucho principle of not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member, and considers resigning in the middle of the term just for spite. He belittles his students in class and when one of them persists in respecting him anyway and tries to persuade him to take her on as a protégé he flat out tells her he hasn’t read any of the stories she’s submitted for class, implies he doesn’t ever intend to, refuses to write her a recommendation for an internship, and makes it clear she’s wasting her time trying to become a writer and his time by asking him to treat her as one. Against the odds and all reason, one of his colleagues, a professor of French literature, falls in love with him, but, after reciprocating for a little while, he abruptly breaks things off apparently because their romance was making them both happy. Then he whines about how nobody likes him.
But why would they? How could they? There’s no reason. No reason for anyone to like him. No reason that we can see for anybody to have ever liked him. No reason for us to like him except on the humane grounds that somebody has to. As far as we can tell, he’s gone through life since college being vociferously unhappy and dissatisfied with everybody and everything, including himself and his writing, and expecting people to admire him for this as if it proves his honesty, intellectual courage, and moral and and mental superiority. All it does is make others unhappy and dissatisfied and what makes it worse---actively cruel, in fact---is that he knows what he’s doing and still won’t cut it out.
Astoundingly, there are people who like him or have liked him, loved him, in fact. And they’re not crazy or stupid or overtly masochistic.
We meet two of his former girlfriends and both seem smart and well-adjusted, although the main evidence of their intelligence and mental health is how cheerful and relieved both appear at having Philip gone from their lives. His current girlfriend is even smarter and more put together. Her name is Ashley and she’s a talented artist in her own right, a photographer beginning to achieve some success herself (but unlike Philip enjoying it). She’s good natured, outgoing, attractive, and not just because she’s played by a golden and glowing Elisabeth Moss but because she is one of those energetic and engaged people who take a physical delight in going about their daily lives, and there’s no doubt she could and should be doing better in the boyfriend department. But she loves Philip and is committed to their relationship and she’s confused and hurt when he decides to accept Ike’s invitation and spend the summer apart from her. Her fidelity to Philip, who she admits treats her “in a way that only points out how meaningless” she is, is baffling. Even though there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with her, we can’t help wondering, What’s wrong with her?
Then, while Philip extends his stay at Ike’s, leaving Ashley feeing even more abandoned and rejected, she adopts a cat to keep her company and when we see her doting on the cat we begin to understand.
We all know a certain type of cat person. They like to tell you how loving, attentive, playful, and loyal their cat is, like a dog, really, they’ll say. But when you see them together the cat turns out not to be any of those things. It’ll be content to loll in its owner’s arms and soak up the love and attention without giving any sign it notices or cares in return. And the owners don’t seem to notice their cat’s languid indifference. They’ll act as if the cat’s giving them a great gift by deigning to be fussed over, coddled, and carried about like a Teddy Bear or baby doll for grownups, as if it’s doing them a great favor by allowing them to attend to its every need while needing nothing for themselves in return but the occasional contented purr. They’ll cuddle it, hug it, pet it, scratch its ears, rub its belly, talk baby talk at it, and, although the cat will look too bored to even work up the effort to yawn, they’ll act as if the cat was responding with lavish shows of grateful affection.
Ashley is that kind of cat person and Philip is a cat.
Someone else cares for Philip. Someone who is not that type of cat person. Ike.
Bastard that he is, Ike is not entirely with sympathy or affection. He may have ceased to love his real daughter, if he ever did love her, but he is leaning towards loving Philip as a surrogate son, in his way, at any rate, which is the way of an egotistical and selfish father doting on his favorite who is favored because the old man sees him as his replacement in whom and through whom he expects to live on after death.
His affection for Philip is cold-hearted, self-serving, and self-flattering. It’s based on a reversal of Philip’s usual effect on people:typically people don’t care about Philip’s writing because they don’t care about him; Ike cares about Philip because he cares about nothing except Philip’s writing.
To Ike, you are the work you do. He’s interested in you to the degree your work interests him. And he has an extremely limited idea of what work is and what makes it worth doing and worth his attention, which seems to be based on how closely it resembles the work he’s done as a great American writer. If he doesn’t see the work you do as comparable to the work he does, he’s not interested. In fact, he’s contemptuous and dismissive. This explains his treatment of Melanie.
Of course, what Ike cares most about in Philip’s writing is its resemblance to his own.
In caring for Philip, Ike is caring for himself, a task he finds as difficult as everyone else who has to put up with him.
Ike is a cold-hearted, miserable son of a bitch, as relentless and ruthless as Philip in inflicting his misery on others. Like Philip he’s an emotional sado-masochist, seeming to need to hurt others because it hurts him to do it and he wants that pain. But Pryce makes Ike’s vicious expressions of misanthropy, cynicism, nihilism, self-imposed alienation, and emotional cruelty in the service of beating back all claims on his affections sound like statements of self-evident principle. There’s the ring of moral decency in his meanest and most self-aggrandizing one-liners. Of his many estranged friends, once-valued colleagues, and formerly devoted students he declares, “Having once known me will always be the the most interesting thing about them,” and coming from Pryce it sounds not like an insult but like exactly what Ike intends, an indictment of their inexcusable weakness of character. When he decides he can’t bear Melanie’s company any more because she’s being “a pain in the ass” by insisting he treat her with some kindness, she being his daughter, after all, and tosses her out of the house, he tells her “I don’t know if I can continue to accommodate you here”and it sounds so reasonably and diplomatically put you almost want to congratulate him on his tact.
And Pryce gives Ike a residual measure of warmth and a vestigial capacity to enjoy life’s little pleasures that Philip doesn’t have, which makes us think or at least wish that once upon a time Ike was a nicer, more likeable person and a writer whose work was admirable for more than its intellectual heft.
Philip’s fiction, we suspect, is like his hero’s in being infinitely clever and knowing and full of an acerbic wit. But we can believe that Ike’s fiction, the best of it, at any rate, the stuff he wrote when he was in his prime, was infused with an intensity of feeling that ranged beyond anger and self-regard and revealed a moral and emotional intelligence that carried readers away.
That doesn’t preclude his having been a louse back then. It just suggests that he was once capable of not being a louse or not as terrible a louse. But however decent-hearted he might have been at one time, it’s all in the now distant past and Pryce makes it plain that it’s going to stay there. This is not a man who’s going to be redeemed, even if he wanted to be, which he decidedly doesn’t.
Pryce as Ike’s almost loving Philip and Ritter as Melanie’s not out and out loathing him are about all Philip has going for him in engaging our sympathies and keeping us sitting still to watch his story play out on screen.
In a story with such an unsympathetic protagonist you might expect to find a rooting interest in his antagonists or his victims. The trouble here is that Philip has no worthy antagonists ---the way he deals with the rival novelist, the Jonathan David Foster Franzen character, gives us a clue that he’s adept at avoiding involvement, professional and personal, with anyone who might pose a threat to his vanity or stand up to his cruelties---and his victims have flaws of their own apart that make them difficult difficult to sympathize with.
An exception is Norm, an old novelist friend of Ike’s, played by Yusef Bulos. He appears only briefly, but he warms up the movie while he’s on screen, quietly and modestly reproving both Ike and Philip by demonstrating that’s is possible to be a great and famous writer and still be a mensch.
Just about every other character, however, is obnoxious to some degree past bearable and there’s no good reason to care about them or be interested in them except that they are all human and afflicted by the human stain, which may be the most Rothian thing about the movie.
The rival novelist (Keith Poulson) seems too proud of his reputation as a kind and decent person unspoiled to actually be kind and decent. Philip’s former girlfriends (Samantha Jacober and Kate Lyn Sheil) seem nice but only nice enough and nice in that way that’s often a pale and lazy substitute for genuine decency. The publisher’s assistant Philip rejects and insults in mid-kiss (Dree Hemingway) seems to want Philip because others want him. The fact he has a longtime girlfriend turns her on. The student whose dreams Philip casually crushes (Maïté Alina) is on the make. She’s an opportunist and having Philip as her teacher is an opportunity. The French professor (Joséphine de La Baume) is a calculating careerist but a sneaky one. She knows how to sabotage other people’s careers without being seen as a saboteur. She’s also self-destructive. In falling for Philip she seems to be deliberately foiling her own scheming and in taking him on as her lover she’s getting the punishment she thinks she deserves.
Even the two female leading female characters, Melanie and Ashley, wronged and abused as they are by the most important men in their lives, make problematic heroines.
Melanie is problematic because we only ever see her in the company of Philip or Ike or both and they’re crazy-makers with a knack for bringing out the worst in others. But if this is Melanie at her worst then we have to think that her best must be pretty darn good. She’s bitter and acerbic in self-defense and Ritter handles Melanie’s bitterness and acerbity with wit and a quiet ferocity without letting the bitterness and acerbity define her.
Ashley is problematic in another way. She’s a victim who looks like she ought to be a heroine. Moss appears harder than she does on Mad Men, and I mean harder in bone and muscle as well as in spirit. She’s filled out in a way that prefigures a sturdy middle-age and in Listen Up Philip she looks more like a former college lacrosse player than the dancer she was. The effect is that next to Philip she comes across as too old---the now thirty-four year old Schwartzman looks to be the same size he was when he starred in Rushmore sixteen years ago---to be putting up with the perpetually adolescent Philip. That Philip can reduce someone this mature, strong, and intelligent to tears is a proof of his maliciousness. That someone this mature, strong, and intelligent sticks around for him to do it is possible evidence of her masochism. Anybody can be victimized by a malignant personality, but we can’t help thinking Ashley knows better and could resist if she wanted to.
With Philip away, she’s lonely and adrift, but she’s also relaxed and, when she’s not thinking about him, happy, and we’re glad for her but also worried for her because of what might happen when Philip comes back. This is one romantic comedy in which we root for the guy not to get the girl. The suspense is in our wondering if Ashley will gather the strength to throw the bum out of her life once and for all, and once we see how she is with cats we have reason to doubt that she will.
Everyone Philip encounters is such a poor specimen that we begin to wonder if maybe he’s right about people. Perhaps his alienation and misanthropy are justified. He’s a writer after all, a talented one, even if he’s not as talented as he believes he should be, and writers are notoriously insightful when it comes to analyzing character (everyone’s but their own, usually). If you’ve spent any time in the company of writers you know one of the most unsettling things that can happen to you is to catch one of them studying you.
But this is Philip, after all. He’s an expert at seeing the worst in people and then bringing it out in them just to prove himself right. So we can’t be sure: Is it him? Is it them? Is it both? Is it us? Where’s the truth here?
For most of the movie, Listen Up Philip sticks to Philip’s point of view and how reliable is Philip? We don’t get much help from the narrator---Didn’t I mention there’s a narrator? I’ll get to him---who affects objectivity but is too knowing in a way that makes him sound as if he’s holding an awful lot back. He also sounds written. And that raises the question, Written by whom? The movie’s director and screenwriter, Alex Ross Perry, of course, but who is Perry writing as? Himself? “Himself”? The director and writer of the documentary Listen Up Philip supposedly is? And is that documentary a real thing? It could be a product of Philip’s imagination. He’s the only one we can imagine being interested in such a documentary. That would make Philip the narrator of the movie or, rather, the narrator of the narrator. Just who is telling this story?
Who is telling the story of any story?
The inherent unreliability of storytelling and storytellers is another very Rothian theme at work in Listen Up Philip.
What makes all these characters compelling or at least worth paying attention to is they are constructs of a very smart, very witty, very literary script and are brought to life by an ensemble of extremely talented, intelligent, and subtle actors. But what really saves them in our eyes, literally, is that we see them through a camera under the sly and mind-games-playing direction of Alex Ross Perry.
Unlike in The Office and Parks and Recreation, the fake documentary conceit isn’t simply a device to let characters talk about themselves or get around holes in the plot or hide the fact that there isn’t a plot. It’s intrinsic to the storytelling. In fact, that’s the point: it is storytelling. Perry’s calling attention to Listen Up Philip as a told story.
But like I said, who’s telling the story?
Who’s supposed to be behind the camera? Who wrote the script? Who wrote the narrator’s lines? Who is the narrator? Perry makes artful use of him, whoever he is. Perry lets him drone on at the top of the film until just past the point where we’re screaming for him to shut up and let us focus on the characters and the main action and then lets him fall silent until just past the point when we’re begging for him to come back and give us some relief from focusing on these characters. Perry keeps up the pattern throughout and by about midway through we’ve not just grown used to the narrator’s intrusions, we’re looking forward to them for his sake. He’s grown on us as a character. In fact he’s the most likeable character in the movie, whoever he is.
It helps that he has the sonorous baritone voice of Eric Bogosian.
Wes Anderson likes to play with narrators, onscreen and off, named and unknown, to call attention to his movies as told stories too. And there are other Anderson influences at work in Listen Up Philip, not the least of which is the casting of one of Anderson’s favorite actors from his stock company of players as the lead playing the sort of oblivious egotist Anderson likes to put at the center of his movies. But the main stylistic influence that struck me was Woody Allen’s.
Listen Up Philip looks and sounds like Allen’s two best films from the 1980s, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. It’s set among the same cohort of New York pseudo-intellectuals and is about people too smart for their own good who should and do know better but behave badly anyway, although nobody in Listen Up Philip tries to get away with murder. And there’s the fact that Allen did his own take on Roth in 1997’s even darker but funnier and more succinct (and I think underappreciated) down-there-on-a-visit---there being the main character’s private hell where Billy Crystal reigns as the Devil---Deconstructing Harry.
But the fake documentary and the narrator are the giveaways.
The characters are completely unaware they’re being filmed, as if the camera’s hidden and they’re being observed from a distance like a tribe in the Brazilian rainforest who have no contact with the outside world and are best understood if they’re left undisturbed to go about their traditional ways. The narrator speaks in an almost affectless tone, as if being over-careful to sound completely nonjudgmental and his vocabulary is that of an anthropological or psychological case study. The serious, humorless, unironic, deadpan, detached, ostensibly unbiased and professionally objective tone is at odds with the intimate and emotional comedy being played out, which is the joke. Allen made a movie built around the same joke. His first one.
Which is another joke.
All joking aside, Listen Up Philip depends on our being able to put up with Philip for nearly two hours. That challenge to our patience and tolerance is made easier by his being played by Jason Schwartzman who is somehow able to get away with Philip’s meanest lines. Reacting to news of the death of the subject of an interview he was counting on doing for the money and exposure it would bring to him, Philip says, “I’m glad he’s dead and all, but it would have been a great opportunity for me. Last interviews are hard to get”, and Schwarztman almost makes us feel Philip’s pain.
Some of it is due to his being pint-sized. He’s too small to take seriously as the menace he wants to be, coming across as endearingly and pathetically ineffectual in his hostility, like a terrier straining at his leash and yapping at a passing Great Dane he means to chase from his territory.
Some it is due to the naiveté he’s able to bring to the role. Philip seems to sincerely believe that his narcissism, cynicism, and anger are attractive qualities and reasonable responses to the way life is and he can’t understand why people refuse to see things his way.
But some of it, at least for me, is the reservoir of good will he’s able to draw from thanks to his three seasons as the star of HBO’s Bored to Death.
On Bored to Death, Schwartzman played Jonathan Ames, another young novelist at odds with himself and disappointed with his own writing and the direction of his career. Like Philip, Jonathan is a solipsist and an egotist with a penchant for saying the wrong thing and a habit of thinking it’s all about him. He’s bitter and angry too. But unlike Philip, he is basically decent and kind-hearted and instead of sulking through his life, he tries to get out of his own head by going out of his way to help others, although in a self-romanticizing way by taking up a second career as an unlicensed private detective.
He’s active and, although cautious because he’s usually aware he’s overmatched in almost any situation, brave. And he’s likeable with good friends whose friendship is worth having and it’s not surprising that he gets the girl from time to time.
There’s something else he is.
An alter-ego for a real life novelist.
Bored to Death’s creator, novelist Jonathan Ames.
Naturally, I couldn’t help drawing the thematic parallels. I began to imagine Jonathan and Philip as alter egos of each other. And I went back and forth between wondering which was the invention of which. I could see Listen Up Philip as an episode of Bored to Death in which Jonathan is at work on a short story about the kind of successful novelist he dreams of being when he’s not afraid of becoming that kind of successful writer and I could see Bored to Death as a dramatization of a novel by Philip Lewis Friedman in which Philip portray himself as he actually sees himself, a nice and decent guy doing his best in a hostile world designed to thwart him at every turn.
In the end, I decided that Philip doesn’t have the sense of humor, sympathy, and detachment to imagine himself as a comic failure while Jonathan has all the angst, self-doubt, and innate decency needed to imagine himself as such a shit-heel.
And that’s how I finally came to enjoy Listen Up Philip, as a sequel to Bored to Death…
When I wasn’t enjoying it as that Philip Roth novel Philip Roth never wrote.
At Slate, something to talk over at a coffee shop with WiFi after you’ve seen the movie: The Brilliant Fake Novels of Listen Up Philip.
Speaking of Woody Allen, Philip Roth, and Deconstructing Harry…also at Slate, by Alex Abramovich: The Estranged Twins. Woody Allen and Philip Roth: Separated at Birth?
Last words by L.A. Times book critic David L Ulin: Finding Lost Philip Roth in a Provincetown used bookstore.
Listen Up Philip, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry. Starring Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de La Baume, and Eric Bogosian. 108 minutes. Now in theaters and available to watch instantly at Amazon.