Yes, Listen Up Philip features an insufferable author protagonist, but Alexander Huls argues that the film is as close to a literary experience as you’ll ever witness on the big screen
Frankly, Listen Up Philip shouldn’t work. Some might argue that’s because it provides almost a full 108 minutes of exposure to an egocentric, insufferable asshole author, Philip (Jason Schwartzman), who leaves his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) to spend months at the home of his literary idol, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce, playing a Philip Roth proxy), who is also an insufferable asshole. It’s like someone double-dared writer-director Alex Ross Perry to destroy any possibility of audience identification in the first scene (he succeeds) and then test viewers’ tolerance threshold (your mileage may vary).
But, really, the reason Listen Up Philip shouldn’t work is this: it translates to screen the writerly devices and literary style of authors like Philip Roth (his proxy here is no accident). Devices that are generally understood to be risky endeavours on screen manifest in Perry’s film: an omniscient narrator who pops in with dense prose on the internal thoughts and emotions of characters; sudden chapter-like shifts in character perspectives (including, very briefly, a cat’s) and/or unclear passages of time; spoken dialogue or rhythms in conversation that flout verisimilitude; and, yes, long-term exposure to miserable, horrible, people.
Listen Up Philip uses all of these devices to such loyal effect that the movie watches like a novel reads. Which, not to belabour the point, isn’t something that’s supposed to work, or even happen. It’s as if Ross didn’t want to just make a movie literate in temperament or subject (authors navigating the literary world and their own psyches), but to genetically graft book DNA to a film. The result is not so much an adaptation of spirit but, frequently, form. The intoxicating pangs of recognition (especially if you know your Roth and fiction of his ilk) make scenes in Listen Up Philip begin to feel like turning pages.
It does help that the film makes it as conducive as possible. You’re lovingly immersed here in the world of fiction (Authors! Agents! Book launches! Writing classes! Mentors!) and all its sensibilities – on and off the page. You get Ike’s book covers. You get, in Philip and Ike, the kind of literary snobs and entitled misogynists you probably know too well (in both the real world and in novels). So yes, Listen Up Philip feels distinctly literary because the literary world is its narrative subject. But the feeling goes beyond that, and it’s precisely because of that one word: feeling.