Listen Up Philip

Alex Ross Perry
Jason Schwartzman, Elizabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krystin Ritter
The Setup: 
Arrogant prick writer alienates everyone in his life.

I was looking forward to this since I saw the trailer for it, as I love movies about arrogant pricks, especially artistic ones, and I love Jason Schwartzman, and I love Jason Schwartzman as an arrogant prick. It also looked to be good fun as he alienates his grilfriend [Elizabeth Moss] and is aided and abetted by another arrogant prick author, Jonathan Pryce as Ike Zimmerman. And... it turns out to be just different enough that I'm not sure if it isn't good, or if it's just so unusual that I don't know what to make of it. But what I do know is that I didn't laugh much and I didn't walk out of it delighted by what a great film I had just seen.

The film is narrated by an unseen Eric Bogosian. He comes on and explains that Philip Lewis Friedman is about to release his second novel, is in a relationship with Ashley, a photographer whose work is starting to find success, and his idol is Ike Zimmerman, prolific author with two huge successes [and a bunch of non-successes] under his belt. Need I tell you that this is all happening in Brooklyn? Kind of goes without saying when you hear "arrogant prick young author." In the first scene, Philip meets with his ex girlfriend, who is late [as she always was], leading him to excoriate her for trying to "stray him from his path" and letting her know he brought her a signed copy of his forthcoming book, but now she won't get it. He then meets with a friend who he was close with, and whom he blames for not staying as close as he promised he would remain. Potential reasons for the break in their bond become apparent as the friend rolls off in his wheelchair.

First he decides that he isn't doing any publicity for his new book. Then he goes on a date with a young acolyte, leaving his girlfriend at home. He meets Ike Zimmerman, who doles out a constant stream of faint praise and insulting but "honest" criticism, who invites Philip to come stay with him in his summer house. Zimmerman is the bitter, self-centered old author that Philip apparently strives to be. We find out [via the narrator] that Ashley has gotten used to Philip never being around, and now he tells her he'll be away for virtually the whole summer. "I'm hoping this will be good for us," he says, "but especially for me." He goes, and the two authors sit and have drinks as Ike gently and constantly insults Philip, under the guise of mentoring him. Soon Ike tells Philip that he's heard of a creative writing teacher opening at a local college, which is "Beneath me, but good for someone at your level." Ike's daughter is also around, whom he obviously hasn't devoted much of his attention to, and who nurses a long and lasting resentment.

Then something surprising happens, we leave Philip for a long period, and just stay with Ashley. She and Philip have a harsh discussion which isn't quite a breakup, but maybe is. Once he's gone, she has a stoop sale and gives away his things. She gets herself a cat. She picks up a lowlife, then [wisely] dumps him at the last minute. And there may have been more, only I found it almost impossible to hear anything Elizabeth Moss said, as she chose to whisper her entire role. Then we leave her for a while and take up with Ike. He goes out with another author friend, they pick up two women, then Ike calls Philip over, and starts pushing him on the women. The whole thing is ruined by the presence of Ike's daughter, and he makes sure knows she's the last person he wanted to see.

Then we return to Philip, who is living a lonely life at his college [his students openly ask if he is qualified to teach them], and another woman on staff, Yvette. The narrator tells us that Yvette was used to being the youngest staff member, so she disliked Philip, and also disliked him because his book is good. She sets all the other staff against him, then, when she sees that she's won, she starts to like him. They have a brief relationship, but soon start to hate each other again. Philip returns to Ashley, who doesn't let him in. In an odd decision, the narrator talks over the entire scene of their final breakup, including saying what we can see Ashley saying onscreen. He narrates a quick view of the rest of Philip's life, that he maintained moderate success as an author, but never had another decent relationship.

Once it's over, one is not satisfied. I have not read Philip Roth, but the manner of storytelling and the character of Zimmerman are supposed to be based on him. The movie includes several parody book covers, which those who have haunted used bookstores will recognize the authenticity of. But... who is the narrator telling us so much of the story, instead of us seeing it happen? It keeps one at a remove from getting involved with the story, and certaily is the opposite of the old "show, don't tell" writing maxim. It is especially curious when he is talking over what should be the emotional climax of the film.

The movie is also unusual in structure, with its leaving of characters for long periods, and also scenes that begin with no setup information or sense of time passing, which keeps one off-kilter, causing more confusion than intrigue. And then the story simply isn't structured enough to really feel like it's about any of these characters, none of whom [aside from Ashley] grow or change in any significant way. It's just kind of hard to get a sense of what this movie is really about. And all that [in addition to being unable to make out much of the dialogue] prevents Philip from being all that funny, or interesting. The idea of the young writer deciding that part of what he does includes being a merciless narcissistic prick is interesting, but it just doesn't go enough of anywhere here. I appreciate that we dont have big lessons learned at the end and the writer is not afraid to leave Philip facing a dire future [although with rather conventional "if you don't let love in, you end up bitter and alone" message], and I'm prepared to believe, due to the odd decisions this film makes, that perhaps there is something I simply don't understand going on--but honestly, it just seems like kind of a dud.

Perhaps the best thing about this movie is a particular reaction shot Elizabeth Moss gives, about fifteen seconds of footage that is going to cement her a lot of fans. After she kicks Philip out for good, we watch as happiness and heartbreak and uncertainty and regret and finally happiness again all move silently across her face, in one knockout performance moment. It's far and away the best thing in this movie, but it's not worth seeing the whole thing for.

Should you watch it: 

Had I known what it was really like, I probably wouldn't have.