Listen Up Philip is the name of a movie that came out in October and was written and directed by Alex Ross Perry. It stars Jason Schwartzman as a misanthropic novelist named Philip Lewis Friedman who lives in Brooklyn and whose second book is about to come out and who is on the threshold, professionally, of the literary stratosphere. Philip lives with his photographer girlfriend Ashley, whose career is also on the up-and-up and whose patience with Philip being such an asshole all the time is waning rapidly. She’s played by Elisabeth Moss, most well known for playing Peggy on Mad Men. The “Philip” in the title of the movie refers not just to the Schwartzman character but to Philip Roth, a cantankerous version of whom appears in the film as a character named Ike Zimmerman, played by the Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce (who almost thirty years ago starred as the hapless Sam Lowry in Terry Gilliam’s bureaucratic dystopia Brazil). The typeface on the film poster, with its curlicue serifs, is an allusion to the cover art of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).
The plot of Listen Up Philip borrows something from the structure of the Roth novel The Ghost Writer (1979), in which Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman spends a night at the home of a writer he looks up to named E.I. Lonoff (maybe modeled on Bernard Malamud or Henry Roth). Similarly, in the movie, Ike reaches out to Philip and invites him to leave the city and to come work on his writing at his house upstate, where his daughter Melanie (whom Ike adamantly refers to as “a pain in the ass”) is taking care of the place. A voice-over narration by Eric Bogosian gives a coolly objective counterpoint to all the hotheaded bitchery that occurs onscreen. The movie was shot on Super 16-millimeter and uses an antsy, pseudo-vérité visual style. The color palette is autumnally warm and you’ll never see a character using a smartphone or working at a laptop. In terms of setting, the movie’s haircuts and clothing make it look like it came from today, but yet there they are: typewriters, touch-tone phones, and newspapers and books that are printed on paper.
Listen Up Philip is both refreshingly hilarious and troublingly sad. Refreshing and hilarious because of how uninhibitedly honest and impressively articulate Philip and Ike are about how intensely they hate almost everyone around them. Troubling and sad for the same reason: these guys are solipsists. Other people’s feelings aren’t real for them, just material to be turned well with words, a great example of which occurs late in the film while Philip is dating a woman named Yvette who teaches creative writing at the school he’s also working at upstate. Philip brings her to Ike’s house for dinner. Ike goes on a rant about academia and warns Yvette it’s a trap. Offended, she leaves the room. Ike whistles in awe and says to Philip, “You seem ill-equipped to deal with someone like that.” Philip replies: “We began by hating one another. I think we’re coming back down the other side now.” Ike responds: “That’s a very potent image. You should write it down and use it.” Philip says: “I came up with it on the silent, excruciating drive over here. I’m glad you approve.” Ike: “Oh I do indeed.”
As a movie about how maniacal and/or neurotic a person has to be in order to function successfully as a writer or an artist living in New York, Listen Up Philip has a number of predecessors: All About Eve, Sweet Smell of Success, All That Jazz, My Dinner with Andre, the Scorsese short film Life Lessons, Basquiat, Henry Fool, High Art, The Squid and the Whale, Capote, Julie and Julia, Black Swan, Inside Llewyn Davis and Synecdoche, New York. (And to some extent also TV shows like Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Louie and Girls). Excluded from that list because they’re a category unto themselves are the many, many films by Woody Allen that are also about the lives of writers and artists (or would-be writers and would-be artists) who live in New York: Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, Another Woman, Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity and so on.
Of the films listed above, the two that have the most in common with Listen Up Philip are Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992). The three of them look like each other: the handheld camera work, the brown-and-orange color scheme, the scenes of life in an idyllically pre-internet and infinitely more book-friendly New York. They’re each in part about a novelist character who’s also a creative-writing instructor and who’s going through a breakup with the woman he lives with. And they’re all driven by a bleak and pessimistic energy, the poles of which are loneliness and isolation on the one end and full-on, person-to-person hatefulness at the other.
The hatefulness of these characters derives from their pathologically precise sense of judgment and taste, coupled with a never-ending need for inspiration and stimulation. These things alienate them from other human beings (especially sane, well-adjusted, rational human beings) but they’re also both the origin and the means of sustaining their careers as writers. The loneliness comes from those same high standards being turned inward, a process which culminates in a sense of wretchedness and inferiority and self-doubt—and a need for the other people they have already judged to be inferior and worthless. The unhappy back-and-forth is then tragicomically complicated by the binary logic of the bureaucratic (legal, financial, etc.) commitments that are more or less necessary for an adult romantic relationship in America today: you’re either married or you’re not; filing taxes together or not; sharing a mortgage or not. The forcefulness necessary to get out of these relationships, and to go where your career or your artistic muse is taking you, requires a generous if not gratuitous quantity of drama and, naturally, becomes fodder for future fiction writing.
Part of what’s appealing (or, depending on what you care about, repugnant) about Listen Up Philip is, in addition to the Philip Roth component, how much of the world of books and authors and literary fiction is contained within the movie. There’s a David Foster Wallace-type character named Josh Fawn (the author of a novel called The Exploding Head Trick), who Philip is supposed to follow around and write an article about. Later in the movie, while upstate, Ike shows Philip an obituary in the Times—Josh Fawn has committed suicide. Philip replies: “I mean I’m glad he’s dead and all but doing that interview would’ve been a really great opportunity for me. Last interviews are hard to get.” Near the end of the film, taking a page from the Dave Eggers playbook, Philip tells Yvette, in order to “contextualize [his] sadness,” that he’s an orphan and that both his parents died when he was a kid. There’s also a number of made-up books that appear in the movie, whose covers are parodies of four decades of jacket design, including the covers of Roth’s autobiography The Facts, Martin Amis’s Money, Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Franzen’s The Corrections and Margaret Salinger’s memoir Dream Catcher. Structurally, too, the film can be said to take its cues from modern literature, with a section in which both Philip and Ike recede into the background, and the action focuses on Ashley as she’s adopting a cat and visiting her sister and figuring out how lonesome and liberating it can be to be by yourself in the city. Perry said he took that technique from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955), but it’s also a maneuver that the novelist Richard Yates used in almost all of his novels.
Jason Schwartzman said in an interview that as a lead-up to the shooting of Listen Up Philip, Perry told him that if he wanted to read anything as a way to get ready, it should be Young Hearts Crying, by Yates. As Schwartzman said, paraphrasing Perry, it was “far more of a meaningful book to this movie than any Philip Roth.” Young Hearts Crying came out in 1984 and was Yates’s second-to-last novel. It’s about a so-so poet and playwright named Michael and a would-be painter and fiction writer named Lucy who get married right after World War II. They have a daughter, live for a few years in Greenwich Village and then move begrudgingly to the suburbs. They get divorced and then bounce around in other, not particularly satisfying sexual relationships. The mood at the end of the book is disenchanted and bleak, with phrases coming out of the characters’ mouths like “I’d prefer to believe that everybody’s essentially alone … and so our first responsibility is always to ourselves” and “Fuck art, okay? Isn’t it funny how we’ve gone chasing after it all our lives? Dying to be close to anyone who seemed to understand it, as if that could possibly help; never stopping to wonder if it might be hopelessly beyond us all the way—or even if it might not exist?”
It’s via Yates that you can really link Listen Up Philip to the highpoints of Woody Allen’s Mia Farrow period from the early Eighties to the early Nineties and to the sort of narrative even-handedness that makes those movies—Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Husbands and Wives (1992) in particular—both so structurally elegant and so emotionally generous. (A number of scenes, tropes and plot devices in these movies are almost identical to those of Yates’s books, and his 1976 novel The Easter Parade is even mentioned explicitly in Hannah and Her Sisters.) Despite fitting the biographical profile of a curmudgeonly alcoholic writer, Yates was not a member of the triumvirate of postwar novelists (Roth, Updike and Mailer) referred to by David Foster Wallace as the “Great Male Narcissists.” Yates’s fiction, even though it’s taken from the facts of his life, is nevertheless somehow at a remove from those facts, and this comes across in the way that his third-person omniscient narrator will leave the protagonists behind and pay attention to the other characters in the story for a number of pages, if not for entire chapters and sections. Often these characters are women, and in the case of The Easter Parade, the novel is exclusively about a pair of sisters living in and around New York City, one having settled for a domestic life on Long Island, the other trying to be an intellectual in the city. Yates’s prose is plainspoken and unpretentious and also avoids completely any sort of self-referential head games or chauvinistic self-gratification. If, instead of Yates, Listen Up Philip had had Roth or Gaddis as its primary literary influencer, the movie would’ve been self-conscious and abstruse, which is to say it would’ve been more like a movie by Hal Hartley or Charlie Kaufman, or even like something by Godard.
Instead Listen Up Philip, formally, is an antidote or a counterpoint to what its characters are doing onscreen. It keeps its cool with a kind of therapeutic patience—the effaced tone of which you hear in the voice of Eric Bogosian’s off-screen narrator—while its characters are insistently losing their shit. This creates a healthy, productive, satisfying irony in which the work in question is calm and generous, while the characters it’s dealing with are maniacal and selfish. The technique or attitude comes across as an effective way of dealing with solipsism, which as a subject has a way of pulling both its audience and its author into its own complex and inward-sucking spiral. Perry has found a way to acknowledge solipsism and to portray it onscreen and yet—via a sort of furious paddling in the direction of objectivity—to stay balanced on the cusp of its maw.