Although Philip Roth is often cited as America’s greatest living writer, so far no filmmaker has had any real success in transferring his richly observed world of Judaic literary machismo onto film. Witness—or rather, don’t—the messy failures of Goodbye, Columbus (Larry Pearce, 1969); Portnoy’s Complaint (Ernest Lehman, 1972); or The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003), three classic, era-defining novels adapted to films ranging from the tepid and forgettable (Goodbye, Columbus) to the atrocious (Portnoy’s Complaint and The Human Stain). Not that this should come as any surprise; Roth’s novels, the best of which often resemble dirty jokes obsessively worked over by their narrators into a sort of raw horror, depend upon an essentially unfilmable first-person voice.
So it’s some small miracle just how well Alex Ross Perry has adapted Roth, both his fiction and the man himself, in his terrific new film Listen Up Philip. Philip, whose opening and closing credits are in the same jaunty typeface as the dust jacket of Portnoy’s Complaint and Roth’s other works from the ’60s and ’70s, wears his influence proudly. Jason Schwartzman, playing to type as the prickly up-and-coming young novelist Philip Lewis Friedman, is the classic Roth protagonist—a young Jewish writer slowly achieving all the success he ever wanted, all the while managing to piss off everybody around him. And his relationship with his literary mentor Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) is immediately reminiscent of the writer-mentor relationship at the heart of Roth’s The Ghost Writer. Zimmerman himself, the acclaimed Jewish man of letters with a troubled previous marriage and a subtle misogynistic streak, whose book covers are clearly based on Roth’s own, is a thinly veiled stand-in for the eminent writer himself.
Yet Listen Up Philip is much more than a pale imitation of Roth’s own work. Unlike the previous, unsuccessful adaptations of Roth’s works, all of which unimaginatively try to maintain the voice and tone of his unreliable narrators, Listen Up Philip is harshly critical of its protagonist. Just about every character in the film, in fact—even Zimmerman, though he means it as a compliment—refers to Philip as arrogant.
On its face, this movie shouldn’t really work because of this—who wants to watch a thoroughly unlikable character for two hours? Especially when that character, even in his darkest moments, remains unsympathetic and—no real spoiler here—learns no lessons by the film’s end? Yet the film succeeds brilliantly, thanks in part to just how funny the screenplay is. The film entertains not because of Philip, whose sense of humor is uncomfortably misanthropic, but in spite of him. “Don’t hold my calls,” says Philip’s editor to his secretary at the beginning of their meeting, one of many jokes in the film at Philip’s expense.
The cleverest running joke in the film is the mannered, writerly style Philip speaks in, a style that seems more literary than human. Witness how he refuses his girlfriend Ashley’s (Elisabeth Moss) offer of money. “Put your money away, alright? I’m not taking any money from you. Those days are behind me—forever, I told myself.” It is this affected way of talking—the “I told myself”s of Philip’s diction—that help make him seem like such an uncaring and alien villain. His mentor Ike does this too, and while he still sounds strange and inhuman, Ike’s literary voice seems altogether more gentle and lived-in—the artifice one would expect from an elder man of letters.
Perry’s direction is something else that merits discussion. Although Philip is all mannered affectation, stilted speeches that sound like monologues from a novel, Perry’s film is anything but. Perry’s camera is always in motion, giving us shaky footage, probing close-ups, and an abrasive rawness that goes against all of Philip’s pretensions. In one of the most dazzling sequences in the film, a drunken party Ike invites Philip to, the camera moves so wildly that we can hardly see what is going on. For a man who treats his life as a sort of novel, this fly-on-the-wall, documentary feel is a welcome contrast, one that recalls the grim, grainy vérité of John Cassavetes’ Faces.
This divide between the mannered, written world that Ike and Philip imagine they live in and the ugly reality of what the world really is, is the crux of the film. Perhaps Perry’s most daring choice is his inclusion of a narrator, voiced by Eric Bogosian. For much of the film I was unsure about this device—it isn’t exactly unwelcome, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the film’s frenzied visuals. But I changed my mind about the voice-over after a particularly harrowing scene late in the film in which Philip’s girlfriend angrily yells at him. We can barely hear her over the narrator, who is simply saying the same thing that she is shouting, but this comes as a relief. This scene alone is almost enough to justify the inclusion of the narrator, who ultimately is just another device to illustrate Philip’s need for control, and his desire to package every experience—even the experience of a bitter fight between his girlfriend and him—into some kind of artistic narrative.
Jason Schwartzman has never been better than he is here. There has always been something acutely unlikable about Schwartzman, even in his more likable roles. As Philip he takes the pretension and selfishness inherent to characters like Jonathan Ames and Max Fischer to their furthest point, while stripping away any semblance of humanity or likability. Jonathan Pryce as Ike is also wonderful, turning in his best performance in decades as a genial old man with decades of hatred and bitterness behind his calm exterior. Elisabeth Moss and Krysten Ritter turn in excellent performances as well, as Philip’s neglected girlfriend and as Ike’s adult daughter. Given the way Philip almost explicitly engages in dialogue with Philip Roth’s works, these strong female characters are a wonderful counterweight to Roth’s own troubled portrayals of women.
Listen up Philip is remarkable in all that it does well. It is an act of literary criticism—one of the first narrative films I’ve seen that I can say that about—and a portrayal of the artistic process in all its wonderful discontents. But above all that, it is a great movie, one with a wonderful script, memorable characters, and performances that all count as career bests for its principals. Listen Up Philip is one of the year’s best films, and one that everybody should see.
A truly great film