Movie Review: Listen Up Philip (2014)
Philip, indeed. The title graphics alone—using the font of Philip Roth’s early’70s bestsellers, particularly “Portnoy’s Complaint”—give it away, even if the story hadn’t.
A Jewish-American writer in New York City, with a unique voice and acerbic attitude, leaves his girl and the city to sit at the feet of the great man, who lives in a rustic cabin in the goyishe woods with a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty. But instead of short-story writer Nathan Zuckerman sidling up to E.I. Lonoff, who has a graduate student, Amy, staying with him and his wife (and who may or may not be Anne Frank!), as in “The Ghost Writer,” one of Roth’s best novels, we watch two-time novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), genuflecting before Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who has his daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter), staying with him.
Another difference: Roth is funny.
More than that. Roth’s characters, from Portnoy to Zuckerman, were nice Jewish boys for whom things (libido and ego, generally) got in the way. There was conflict there. This Philip? Writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s version? We first see him lambast an ex, who is 25 minutes late for a lunchdate at a corner coffeeshop; and rather than feel any sense of guilt, he feels free. He’s the literal “freed-man.” So he acts the dick again with another old friend—a contemporary who didn’t live up to the promise, and who (punchline) is in a wheelchair—and then spends most of the movie in this frame of mind. Zimmerman’s the same way, and initially seems to be warning Friedman in a better direction. I.e., “View the error of my ways,” as Lonoff essentially tried to warn Zuckerman. But Zimmerman is worse than Friedman. He’s cantankerous, his talents aren’t what they were, he rails at friends and family. Even as he basks in Friedman’s admiration, he has to take him down a peg. He and his friend Norm get the 25-year-old Scotch; Friedman gets the 10. Zimmerman is forever telling him, “I did it better.” Friedman, who abuses others’ niceties, accepts this abuse. It’s his idol, after all.
There’s a vague argument in the movie that for these writers to create their art they have to distance themselves from the rest of humanity, who are, more or less, chatter, interruptions, annoyances; and maybe in so doing (I’m extrapolating here), in distancing themselves, they plant the seeds of their own destruction, eventually losing the necessary elements, the necessary humanity, to continue to create their art. Actually, scratch that second part. It’s not here. And normally I’d like that. Our popular stories are full of comeuppance for men behaving badly when the real world shows us the opposite—that success almost requires ruthlessness. So it would be nice if our art owned up to that unpalatable observation, and “Listen Up Philip” kinda does. Zimmerman has his great successes, Friedman will have his.
But that leave us with ... what? Again, where is the conflict? Roth gives us the tension between nice and venal, and that drives his narratives, while Friedman is Zuckerman laced with Mickey Sabbath (sans the sex), and so never particularly interesting. He says little that’s witty or insightful. He doesn’t grow, doesn’t shrink. This is a great novelist? He seems more Hollywood/movies than New York/novelist. He ends the film as he began it, walking the streets of New York, alone, bumping into people, with successes ahead and a scowl on his face. I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with him, let alone 90.