Filmmakers long have struggled when it comes to making films about writers. The problem is as vexing as it is obvious: Who wants to watch someone tapping away at a typewriter or keyboard?
Director Alex Ross Perry understands that the best way to look at a writer’s world is by observing what he does when he’s not writing.
In the blistering and amusing Listen Up Philip, we meet Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), an insufferably egotistical writer who manages to create misery for just about everyone with whom he comes into contact. But there’s balance here, as well: The caustic wit of Perry’s screenplay ensures that Philip also suffers. He’s tasted the poison he spews.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
After a successful and well-received first novel, Philip is on the verge of publishing his second book. The novel, titled Obidant, seems headed for a less-than-glowing reception.
At the outset, and throughout the rest of the movie, Philip’s in a fallow period.
For Philip (played by a gaunt, bearded and relentlessly arrogant Schwartzman), other people exist only to punctuate the loneliness and sadness to which he readily confesses.
Philip’s only real soulmate arrives in the form of another writer. He’s Ike Zimmerman, brilliantly played by Jonathan Pryce as a kind of older version of what Philip most probably will become. The older Zimmerman, who hasn’t published a novel in six years, takes Philip under wing. He encourages Philip, but also uses him to bolster his waning and perhaps irrevocably depleted energies. Ike invites Philip to spend time at his country home, where he freely dispenses his wisdom, always wrapped in an all-knowing and often insensitive authoritarianism.
The story is told to us by an unseen narrator (Eric Bogosian) who may actually be reading from one or the other novelist’s subsequent works.
In Manhattan, Philip shares an apartment with Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss), a photographer who’s beginning to find success. You needn’t be much of a prognosticator to know that this relationship can’t last. Watching Moss work is its own pleasure. Ashley becomes the focus of the movie in what amounts to an important, mid-picture digression. Haltingly and then with conviction, Moss shows us how Ashley learns to combat Philip’s presence, fighting it off like an infectious disease.
Two other women turn up. Krysten Ritter plays Melanie, the acerbic daughter Ike can’t help but wound, and Josephine de La Baume portrays a writing teacher at an upstate college where the dispirited Philip does a brief teaching stint.
Perry (The Color Wheel) shoots the movie in what appears to be an informal, hand-held style, homing in for large, uncomfortable close-ups.
I soured on Birdman partly because its main character — an actor played by Michael Keaton — was dislikable and because his problems, though monumental to him, struck me as beside any point about which I really cared.
Philip isn’t exactly a bundle of joy, either.
But the difference between the work of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and that of Perry resides in the sharpness of each’s satirical gift, and the knowingness that each brings to the world he’s trying penetrate.
Perry’s characters don’t need exaggeration or Inarritu-style exclamation points. It almost seems as if these writers have constructed their appalling egos in the same way they construct their characters. Even when they’re trying to be scrupulously honest, they sound as if they’re fictionalizing their lives.
Some see Philip as a youthful stand-in for Philip Roth or have seen the story as taking place in a Roth-like universe. Make your own decision about that.
However you approach the movie, Listen Up Philip is like a very sophisticated joke. Either you get it or you don’t. And those on opposing sides of this equation probably should skip that after-movie drink.
If you find yourself taken by the movie, stay for the end credits: They include book jackets that have been amusingly designed. These parting shots offer a last, perspicacious comment on the work of characters we’ve come to see as awful, but who have been intelligently, comically and precisely nailed.