Each month, Good Times' resident film critic, Sarah Smyth, chooses a hotly anticipated film for our readers. For June, she picks indie comedy, Listen Up Philip.
How do we imagine writers on screen, and how do we imagine them in our contemporary ideas of literature, art and culture? These are the questions director and screenwriter, Alex Ross Perry asks in his latest film, Listen Up Philip. It’s his third feature film, following Imploex, a micro-budget experimental film inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Colour Wheel, a screwball comedy inspired by the work of literary great, Philip Roth, and shot entirely in black and white. Listen Up Philip centralises Perry’s literary interests and inspirations more thoroughly as, narratively and thematically, the film explores the life of a writer on the release of his second novel.
Listen Up Philip follows Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), a young New York-based novelist who believes he’s on the cusp of literary greatness. However, he’s dissatisfied with his life in New York – the crowds, the noise and his deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Moss). He’s abusive and egotistical, yet seems to attract multiple women. After he meets acclaimed author, Ike Zimmerman, he ditches New York and his girlfriend to spend the summer in Ike’s country house. The film then follows his time in the house as his life begins to spiral out of control.
The casting of Jason Schwartzman, indie darling and star of many of Wes Anderson’s quirky hits including Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, is no accident. In tone and narrative, Perry situates his third feature more thoroughly in the more well-trodden road of independent comedies developed by Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach and, of course, Anderson himself. His most prevalent influence, however, is literature itself. If Philip Roth inspired The Colour Wheel, Listen Up Philip is morethoroughly steeped in the image and identity of the acclaimed author, borrowing his name for the titular character. Even Zimmerman suggests Roth through the parallels with Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s self-proclaimed alter ego and one of his most famous literary creations. The parallels, however, are most explicitly drawn through characterisation. As Sight and Sound critic, Michael Atkinson claims, in Friedman, Perry indexes Roth in a particularly interesting way, “imagining, in a sense, how Roth’s famously egomaniacal, womanising, bulldozing personality would fare in the 21st century, when writing slim, sophisticated, self-referential novels could no longer dependably buy you mainstream ubiquity, a nation of fans and a house in the Hamptons.”
Philip Roth is a divisive character, seemingly embodying the worst traits of the self-absorbed author stereotype, yet writing so wryly, lucidly and shrewdly that he can’t help but attract a substantial following. Early reviews indicate that Listen Up Philip unpicks this characterisation, creating an extremely unlikeable yet ambiguous and complex leading man. They also indicate that, through Moss’ character, the film also explores the complicated gender politics that have long irked feminists examining the character and writing of Roth: why do egomaniacal male authors attract so many women?
Why it’s worth seeing: With a promising back catalogue, Alex Ross Perry moves more squarely into the indie mainstream with Listen Up Philip. Boasting a strong cast and many film festival seals of approval (it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was chosen at both the New York and London film festivals for official selection), the film is worth noting. Combined with potentially interesting insights into literature, New York City and gender politics, Listen Up Philip is definitely one to watch.
Listen Up Philip goes on general release in the UK on Friday 5th June.
Jason Schwartzman and Alex Ross Perry on Listen Up Philip.
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Sarah is our regular film blogger. Learn more about her here.