You can’t live in New York for more than 10 days without meeting some truly dreadful people: couples who fret about having to choose between buying a summer home and having a second child, even as you’re struggling to pay your monthly rent; large groups of people getting together for brunch and ordering one mimosa after another, then splitting the bill equally even though you had only tea and an english muffin; and writers. Actually, not all New York writers are dreadful all of the time. And quite a few manage to avoid being dreadful most of the time. But you don’t really want to watch a movie about them, do you? In Brooklyn-based filmmaker Alex Ross Perry’s third feature, Listen Up Philip, Jason Schwartzman plays rude, gloating, self-centered novelist Philip Lewis Friedman — because the writers you hate make much better theater than the ones you love.
Philip is theater, all right. On the eve of bringing his second novel into the world, he cuts his ties with his sweet ex-girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil) for, he claims, having failed to recognize and nourish his vast talent: After she’s late meeting him at a diner, he informs her officiously that he’s going to keep the advance copy he’s brought her — later, he tears out the page bearing his inscription to her, tucking the book away for some other recipient. Not a drop of his genius must be spilled. Things seem to be going OK, though, with his live-in girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), an up-and-coming fashion photographer who apparently doesn’t realize, or care, that her beau is a genuine asshole. At least not yet: When he meets revered old-school super-male writer Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), Philip becomes even more of a monster, if such a thing is possible. Zimmerman helps Philip get a teaching job at a prestigious New England–y college where, naturally, no one likes him. Meanwhile, Ashley is left alone with barely a goodbye.
Perry spends two-thirds of Listen Up Philip showing us how impossible, yet weirdly compelling, Philip and Zimmerman are: The director embroiders, with increasingly intricate layers of dry jokes and selfish acts, their two-sided tapestry of horribleness. The obvious model for Zimmerman is half-loathed, half-revered lit-world legend Philip Roth, who has a reputation for being a terrible person that most likely has seeped into his detractors’ views of his novels: More people “hate” Philip Roth than have actually read him, though one of the most bracing aspects of his work is that he refuses, steadfastly, to do a monkey dance to earn our love. That’s all the more remarkable considering that his fiction is deeply personal, if not outright autobiographical — especially in a world where memoirists have stormed the barricades, desperately trying to earn readers’ adoration by proving how honest and naked they can be. Roth is much more naked than nearly all of them, and he’s mostly making stuff up.
Perry clearly has a great deal of love for Roth: The movie’s funniest touch is a series of fake Rothian book covers, a half-satirical, half-affectionate mini-survey of ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s book design, with titles like Madness & Women and The Shrug. But mostly, the awfulness of Zimmerman and Philip, pure and simple, is what interests him, and Perry doesn’t pass judgment on it. Instead, he simply regards it, like he's studying a grouchy toad on a lily pad. Seeing a flattering reflection of himself in Philip, Zimmerman invites the younger writer to his Connecticut country home to write. There, in a plot twist that never quite gels, Philip meets Zimmerman’s understandably disgruntled daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter). And mostly, Zimmerman uses his country getaway as a place to drink expensive scotch and as a sex lair for the younger babes he’s desperately trying to attract — at one point he uses Philip as a pawn in a sorry seduction game. Pryce is suitably wily and manipulative in this role; his devilish eyebrows do much of the heavy lifting. And as Philip, Schwartzman walks the fine line between being a true naïf and an outright manipulator: His eyes betray bewilderment at the way those around him fail to grasp his brilliance — it’s like a ghost only he can see.
The vainglorious pas de deux between Philip and Zimmerman is entertaining for a while, though the novelty gradually wears off. It doesn’t help that Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams are way too fond of tight close-ups; these are probably meant to reinforce the characters’ claustrophobic self-regard, but they only made me feel like Pepé Le Pew’s cat conquest, desperate to wriggle out of their artificially intense embrace.
Oddly enough, or perhaps not, the strongest section of Listen Up Philip is the one in which Philip and Zimmerman are barely present, at least physically. The movie features a voiceover narration (by Eric Bogosian) describing the characters’ feelings and motivations as they go along. It isn’t the horrendous distraction it might have been — it’s really just a device. Yet in the film’s middle segment, which shows us how Philip’s thoughtlessness finally comes to weigh on Ashley, no gimmicks are necessary. Moss carries her part of the movie with a chiffon lightness that only makes her character’s heartbreak more succinct. She drifts through the city, hoping it can answer her 1,001 questions. (It tries, but it can’t.) She adopts a fetchingly blasé black-and-white long-haired cat — it’s Perry’s in real life — who, in his essential catness, may be just as much of an ingrate as Philip was, though he’s much easier to love. As Moss plays her, Ashley is like a pre-Raphaelite soldier of love, moving forward because she has to, her enormous eyes alert and alive in the midst of whatever pain she’s feeling. She’s the opposite of unbearable. She’s the kind of New Yorker you’d like to meet.