Listen Up Philip is a film for those fascinated by Philip Roth, or that harbor a soft spot for people whose creative personalities stem, in part, from them being jerks. The dark comedy’s story revolves around the New York literary scene, and the problems a talented and amazingly egotistical young writer might face while living in “the city.” Yet, comedy might not be quite the word for it. Listen Up could just as well be a tragedy – a slow, meandering tragedy – with great design, superbly-rendered characters, and a few laughs here and there.
What writer/director Alex Ross Perry does best is flesh out his characters. The titular one is played by Jason Schwartzman, who totally nails the role of the witty, serious, ever cardigan-clad novelist. From the start, he’s on a tear, an ego high. His second book is about to be published, and he decides he’s done taking crap from all the people holding him back, whether they be friends or publishers pestering him about a book tour. This new-found confidence is buttressed by a lion of letters who takes interest in his work. Played by Jonathan Pryce, this elder statesman of American literature stokes the flames of Philip’s confidence, while also seeming to justify his self-imposed exile before his daughter (Krysten Ritter), who resents him.
The elder statesman invites Philip to live in his upstate country home indefinitely. Philip accepts, much to the disappointment of his girlfriend, played by the incredible Elisabeth Moss. Her caring, yet closed character is the emotional counterpoint to Philip’s cool and increasingly nasty (if not funny) new self. She gets so much screen time that at one point I thought the film might have spun off to be just about her, and her new life without Philip. I wouldn’t have minded that, for Listen Up has a tendency to run out of steam, despite how good Schwartzman and Pryce can be. Problem is, not that much happens. Although the runtime is about 110 minutes, it felt as long as Interstellar. And it probably had the same amount of laughs.
Another issue is the narration, which pops up like Philip’s commentary on his own life. At first, it’s a funny, prose-y bit that fits the movie’s bookishness. Then it just overpowers everything. The voice work, done by Eric Bogosian, is solid, but after a while his voice just triggered a response of pure boredom. That’s probably a personal issue on my part. Perhaps I’m just now embarrassed I own cardigans. Anyway, the narration just feels like a returning joke that literally tells the viewer what the characters feel and think. Shouldn’t the movie show us that stuff? Isn’t this cast good enough to do without all wordy, boring talking? At least, for my sake, there were the fake book covers. The retro 80s designs in particular are hilarious and dead-on, and I wish Listen Up had more details like those.
Listen Up Philip is playing at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.