I have to shake the suspicion that earnest young men — always men — will stream Listen Up Philip and think it nails the writing life. The idea frightens me. Alex Ross Perry’s movie about a serious fellow (Jason Schwartzman) brooding about his success on the eve of publication of his second novel begins as a predictable but brisk joke at Philip’s expense. Then, as Perry cedes time to a mentor named Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) and his moldy pensées about lich-ra-choor, the line between parody and sincerity blurs to insignificance, and so does the movie.
Philip is wound up. The New York Times, his publicist confides in a quavering voice, will pan the book. His girlfriend of three years Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) complains, with reason, that he doesn’t give a shit about her photography career. Already he needs a break. Hooking up with Zimmerman helps. A thinly drawn pastiche of Philip Roth, down to the disgust for public expectations and bubble-lettered fonts on his novels (his most notorious is called Audit), Zimmerman suggests Philip stay in his pad in the country. Eventually Zimmerman even gets him an adjunct job at the local private college, much to Ashley’s chagrin. He wants the separation too: “”I hope this will be good for us, but especially for me,” he tells her. Schwartzman’s commitment to hitting one note in a performance dovetails with how Perry’s written Philip; every time he gets a fatuous line he knocks it out. “I’m not successful,” he corrects a student. “I’m notable.” To the lover he breaks up with at the beginning of the movie: “You don’t support me, so you don’t get this gift from me.” When he’s back in the city: “I don’t want you to contextualize my sadness.” But he’s still Jason Schwartzman, doomed to pronounce “fuck” as if he were a seven-year-old on the monkey bars. Better is “Mad Men”‘s Moss, to whom Perry surrenders a portion of the film in which she can, as they used to say, find herself as a photographer and private dancer.
Besotted with handheld cameras and privileged moments in quivering closeups, Listen Up Philip takes its knowledge about novels from Woody Allen instead of novels. Eric Bogosian’s florid voice-over script is of the Allen he-walked-in-the-room-and-sat-down school of inserting-every-comma. Perry, like many of us, has watched Husbands and Wives a lot. Explaining his decision to move to the country, Philip packs his books while the camera zips from him to Ashley as she hurls therapy-speak patter like “You’re looking out for your own self-interest.” It could be a reprise of Gabe (Allen) and Judy Roth’s (Mia Farrow) practiced, weary contempt for each other. Many of us love Husbands and Wives despite its devotion to psychobabble and, more crippling, its belief that men must choose between stability and the fleeting pleasures of extramarital affairs, as if if this were a real choice. Allen went one better in Deconstructing Harry: should a writer be a shit for the sake of his art? Another false binary. Philip Roth is a great novelist and may or may not have led the life of a libertine, but the latter did not produce the former; people who don’t write make this mistake. At least Deconstructing Harry abjures realism to make Allen’s novelist an oil stain with human characteristics; Listen Up Philip doesn’t go far enough. A scene in which the novelists invite young women to Ike’s house plays like middling early seventies Cassavetes; if the actors aren’t improvising they look like it, and what they come up with just sits there.
Listen Up Philip should be malicious instead of merely bitchy. For unadulterated savagery, nothing beats Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, the story of an egotist with a frightening pathology. Perry’s movie, though, shows familiar stereotypes that amused thirty years ago. Hearing Philip’s prose in letters, I don’t know if Philip is parodying a talentless cretin, if Perry thinks Philip is Bellow, Mailer, Roth, or if Philip is a talentless cretin who thinks he’s Bellow, Mailer, and Roth, i.e. Jonathan Franzen. Pryce gets the worst I’m-a-writer script since Frank Langella survived Starting Out in the Evening in 2007. To survive the following lines qualifies him for the Nobel Peace Prize, not the National Book Award: “Even looking at the girls here bring a cascade of emotions”; “The answer is at once arrogant and correct”; “The innate ineffability” of human emotion. A late-minute development involving a female professor of thwarted ambition goes nowhere; Perry directs her to act like a tootsie. The last, didactic shot shows Philip on a cold Manhattan sidewalk, walking against the current of pedestrians; it endorses Philip’s determination to go his own way or is an epitaph for a stubborn bastard. Take your pick. Maybe it’s both.