Niall Anderson is unimpressed with the latest from indie whizzkid Alex Ross Perry.
Listen Up Philip is a very broad comedy shot in the mannered, handheld style of current indie-mope drama. Or it’s a mannered indie-mope drama with outbreaks of broad comedy. Or it’s a fable of artistic creativity whose biggest joke is how banal artists’ lives are. Or it’s just a feature-length episode of This Life with Jason Schwartzman in it. What it isn’t, however, is any good at all.
Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman) is a thirtysomething writer whose first novel was admired in all the right places, but which didn’t do a whole lot of business. He has high hopes for his second, and so, it seems, does everyone else. But if Philip wants to press his advantage, he’s going to have to play the game: author photographs, journalism of his own – the whole Modern Man of Letters schtick. It isn’t just that Philip doesn’t want to do any of this, it’s that he’d like to demean absolutely everyone who’d have him demean himself by playing along. This includes mildly smitten publicity poppets, his agent, his publisher, rival novelists, and above all his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), whom he resents for doing precisely this kind of thing in her own career as a photographer. Philip, it is quickly clear, is a world-class dick.
Writer-director Alex Ross Perry would nonetheless like to present Philip as at least something of a seeker. He’s just trying to compensate for his insecurities! He’s just looking for an honest human connection in rivalrous New York! Of course he is. To reinforce the point, Perry introduces somebody who is an even bigger dick: a reclusive lion of post-war literature called Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Zimmerman cautiously praises Philip’s novels, offers him the use of his Massachusetts hideaway, and even gets him a job teaching creative writing in Zimmerman’s local college. These experiences are, in the end, scarcely less demeaning than what Philip was up against in New York – but they’re being offered to him by a bona fide literary genius, so Philip decides to suck it up. While also, obviously, remaining a complete dick.
In formal terms at least, there is a lot going on in Listen Up Philip. There are nods a-plenty to middle-period Woody Allen, particularly the flintily dislikeable Husbands & Wives and Stardust Memories. In its concentration on the relationship between a young writer and an old master, it borrows heavily from Philip Roth’s 1982 novel The Ghost Writer. Ike Zimmerman’s bitter self-isolation in the countryside is similarly meant to echo the isolation of Roth’s frequent novelistic alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. There’s also an unreliable narrator (Eric Bogosian), whose sympathies seem sometimes to be with Philip and sometimes against him – another Rothian touch. Then there’s the typeface that the film uses for its credits, which is the same typeface Random House used on Philip Roth’s novels from Portnoy on. Then there’s …
Anyway, you get the picture.
This formal “adventurousness” has garnered Listen Up Philip a good deal of chin-stroking appreciation on the festival circuit. It’s certainly adventurous to leave so many hostages to fortune in a single film. Just as a remake or sequel can’t help but put you in mind of the original, referencing on this scale drags Listen Up Philip into direct competition with its influences. It’s hardly a disgrace that the film is less vital and gripping than The Ghost Writer, but having borrowed so much from that novel, it’s valid to ask what the film adds to it. Or subtracts from it. Or even just engages with. Unfortunately, Listen Up Philip treats its influences as a sort of high-scale set-dressing. Much as Philip in the film is content to swallow Ike Zimmerman’s advice just because he’s Ike Zimmerman, the film as a whole harks to its master’s voice without listening to what he’s actually saying.
None of this would matter if the film were convincing on its own terms: if the relationships had any native interest, if the artistic goals of the characters were given any substantial reality (we never hear a word of Philip’s prose, for instance), if anything anybody did in the film stepped outside of their own self-dramatisations. Related to the last point is the fact that every actor in Listen Up Philip seems to be in a slightly different film. Jason Schwartzman is Max Fischer, again. Jonathan Pryce is Max Von Sydow. Elisabeth Moss goes full Streep. The performances are all fine, but they’re all borrowed from somewhere else and they have no home here.
It feels slightly odd to criticise an American film for its ambition, but in fact there is no ambition here. Listen Up Philip is a testament to the difference between fluency and articulacy, between style and signature, between being able to say something and actually having something to say. Anyone could make a film as bad as this, with less effort.