The most surprising thing about “Listen Up Philip” is how boring it is, despite the fast-paced dialogue, the New York City setting — heck, even despite Elisabeth Moss. The best part of the movie is the hilarious, pitch-perfect montage of jackets of books “written” by its various characters. Unfortunately, the characters are nowhere near as funny, and the film’s satire of the New York literary world is broad and unfocused.
For plot, the movie follows a young writer and self-absorbed jerk, Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), who strikes up a friendship with his literary hero, an older writer and self-absorbed jerk, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Philip leaves Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), his girlfriend of three years, and moves upstate to Ike’s country retreat.
But what Alex Ross Perry’s film is really about is poking fun at the Philip Roth type — a man who resembles Philip Roth the writer as well as Roth’s male characters. The movie is single-minded and focused in delivering its message, which is essentially: “A bombastic, narcissistic artist who possesses not a shred of a sense of humor when it comes to his self-regard, and who mysteriously attracts women despite or because of his jerkiness, is a ridiculous, outmoded and pathetic type.” Well, duh.
I’m not discounting the Rothian male as a valid subject for a film. Quite the opposite. I just think the film doesn’t do him justice. A heroic attitude and unapologetic narcissism are necessary conditions of being a serious artist. Artists and writers who persevere all have god-like moments, when we feel that our work is so important that it supersedes relationships, social graces and obligations. Without this feeling, we might as well give up our poorly paid creative habits. Male artists and writers have been allowed to externalize this attitude — to put their obnoxiousness into practice, so to speak. Women carry it around quietly — but have it all the same. As a writer who is no stranger to heroic self-importance (the kind that alternates with crippling insecurity), I looked forward to this film. But the makers of “Listen Up Philip” don’t seem genuinely interested in the Rothian type as a human subject worthy of exploration — only as a cultural expression, a set of behaviors worthy of debunking.
Since, as a cultural expression, his type has long been debunked to death, it’s logical to want more from the film. I, for example, expected complex characters who possess some internal narrative logic. But Philip and Ike are both flat caricatures, targets that are sloppily set up only to be knocked down. Philip seethes with rage throughout the movie and is over-the-top rude to everyone but Ike. You wonder why, but get no answers. By the time the screenwriters offer a biographical detail that could act as an explanation, it’s too late — Philip has been enacting a pastiche of inexplicable behavior for so long, you have lost interest. For example, when Philip refuses to promote his new book, the film doesn’t explain why, perhaps assuming that the Rothian stereotype the viewers carry inside their 21st-century heads will make them take Philip’s decision for granted. The only clue is the scene in which a photographer asks Philip to strike a reading pose next to an antique letterpress. Phoney, sure. But I found it impossible to believe that a writer who has already published a book in the age of Twitter, as Philip has, would become enraged by such a mild media stunt. For satire to be successful, there has to be a level of realism to what it’s trying to satirize, but Philip is not a real writer, nor is he a real person. Philip and Ike are both highly stylized, empty superhero suits of Rothian obnoxiousness who strike poses for two hours of screen time. There’s no human presence detectable inside.
Why do we even care about Philip Roth and his male characters in the first place? Roth remains fascinating despite his arrogance because his writing is good. His and his characters’ obnoxiousness is inseparable from their relentless, piercing, brave self-examination. In his best writing, Roth gets at the human reality of his characters, while his worst writing — later novels whose plots are little more than an old man’s sex fantasies — gets at the human reality of Roth.
In the movie, we don’t get any of Ike Zimmerman’s writing. We do get Philip Friedman’s, given that the annoyingly arch voice-over and most of the dialogue appear to come from some future novel that Philip would write (or is writing, in his head) about this period in his life. And this writing isn’t great. The characters say things like “she wanted him to want her” and “she became devastatingly aware of her own desperation, loneliness and torment” and “I want you to contextualize my sadness.”
The actors seem to have a tough time uttering such contrivances. Jason Schwartzman’s facial expression remains unchanged throughout the movie — his deep, close-set eyes are fixed in a look of constipated intensity no matter what he is doing or saying. Since we get no evidence that Philip is a great writer, nor do we get any glimpses of him ever being a decent or charming person, it remains unclear how or why Ashley has become attracted to him in the first place, why she remains with him for years and why she is sad when he leaves. The flashback scene to the beginning of their romance shows Philip being rude to a near-sociopathic extent, and when Ashley doesn’t just get up and leave, I can no longer suspend my disbelief. I stop expecting narrative logic and become disinterested. Of course love is not fair, and attraction is mysterious. Women and men routinely waste years on lovers who are unworthy jerks. But there is zero chemistry — intellectual or physical — between Schwartzman and Moss. Don’t expect anything resembling the lobster scene from “Annie Hall.” A hint of sexual connection might have explained why Ashley might find Philip compelling, but there is none. “Listen Up Philip” is an oddly chaste movie. It is impossible to imagine Philip Friedman having sex with anyone. Perhaps that’s the point.
Moss, whose character does get some believable, human moments, seems to have a difficult time acting opposite a caricature. Her best acting happens when she is in the company of other women, or in the company of her cat. But these female friends never become full characters, and a cat can only do so much. A self-absorbed, arrogant man involved with a woman whose career is on the rise is a familiar narrative trope. Watching Philip and Ashley exchange platitudes made me miss the brutal, extremely specific, psychologically nuanced relationship between another movie couple with a similar dynamic: Bernard and Joan in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.”
The rest of the characters in “Listen Up Philip” are caricatures as well. There is Ike’s lecherous elderly friend: Shown sucking on a cigar and inquiring after Ike’s daughter’s “cute friends who used to come by,” he is such a broad stereotype that he isn’t even creepy. There is Philip’s French love interest, who, at one point, actually wears a beret. There are two women Ike and his friend pick up and try to set up with Philip. I think the joke is that these women are in their 40s, although I can’t be sure. There are undergrads, literally despised by Philip as a class. His blind disdain for them is never explored, which is a missed opportunity to really get at the fascinating, funny and miserable relationship between being a writer and attempting to teach the craft.
In a movie without characters, a setting can become a focal point, a character in itself. Some reviewers enjoyed “Listen Up Philip” for its skewering of the New York literary scene. Which makes me wonder when these reviewers last witnessed a literary scene. The details are off: the total absence of women at a publishing house, for instance, or the fact that, as an adjunct instructor, Philip Friedman gets a faculty office with his name on the door.
The upstate countryside is generic. Jane Margolis is so painfully bland as Ike’s daughter — a young woman who doesn’t seem to belong to any specific cultural milieu — that I found myself idly flashing back to her as Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend in “Breaking Bad.” In fact, the makers of “Listen Up Philip” could learn a lot about attention to cultural specifics and character complexity from recent television, from “Girls” to “Orange is The New Black” to “Transparent.”
If a precocious and studious space alien had taken a Twentieth Century Earth Literary Politics seminar and made “Listen Up Philip” as a thesis project, I’d give it an A+. But as a movie created by earthlings about my city and my scene, it bored me to distraction. If you live in my part of Brooklyn, you will get a kick out of the scene in which Elisabeth Moss adopts a cat from our very own Sean Casey Animal Rescue. If you are considering getting a cat, a dog, a snake, or an iguana, Sean Casey’s is the place to go. The movie you can skip.
Anya Ulinich is the author of “Petropolis” and “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.”
Anya Ulinich is the Forward’s Contributing Art Critic.