I couldn’t stop thinking of the Cohen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis while watching Alex Ross Perry’s new movie, Listen Up Philip. Not just because of the superficial similarities: not just because Philip and Llewyn are both grumpy, hirsute male artists who seem intent on disseminating their self-important masculine angst. Not just because both films are loosely based on real people whose names have been altered (Dave Van Ronk for Llewyn, Philip Roth for Philip), or because these altered names both appear in the titles of each film in a way that implicitly condescends to their childish male characters. And lastly, not just because both films are stylized to reflect — with self-reflexive criticism — the ways nostalgia deforms how we perceive art.
I couldn’t stop thinking of how much I’d rather listen up to Llewyn, perhaps because Inside Llewyn Davis revealed so much of what was inside Llewyn Davis. Before taking on Philip, arguably a tougher beast, I’d like to backtrack a bit to last year’s Llewyn. Llewyn Davis is a character who, through a combination of cantankerousness and bad luck, is set, at the beginning of the film, on a long, useless path that culminates in his getting beaten up in an alley.
But through all of that, the film strategically uses his music to endear us to his at-times unlikable character and that character’s sick joke of a trajectory. Despite the Coen brothers’ trademark cynicism and even nihilism (No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man), and despite Llweyn’s relentlessly dark journey across the plateau of his career and Dante-esque dive into an underworld between NY and Chicago — the underworld representative of Llewyn’s alienation as an obscure non-figure in a country that prizes iconic people and places and tends to neglect the rest — the film’s romanticism fights a winning battle. When Llewyn sings, spotlit in his scene-y Greenwich Village haunt, his failing-at-lifeness becomes transcendent song. Corny as it may seem, the film seems to truly want to suggest a profound interiority to this character, and to use his music — just as the character does — for moments of excavation.
Listen Up Philip attempts exactly the opposite. Schwartzman’s shell of misanthropy as Philip is almost never revealed to have a core (with the rare exception of moments he shares with his like-minded literary Fairy Godfather, played by Jonathan Price — but are these ever moments of truth, or are they mere sycophancy? Is he only ever in a mode of antagonism or smarm?), which can make it difficult to suspend our disbelief about his relationships. For example:
On the outside he’s an asshole, and on the inside he’s… hmmm. While, yes, his relationships tend to crumble, it’s hard for us to even imagine how he got into them in the first place: he’s exaggeratedly rude to just about everyone — even the people who’ll help him achieve acclaim — and yet, he’s gaining admiration. He’s not on the same losing track as the soulful but unpleasant Llewyn Davis. The problem is, unlike in Llewyn Davis, we’ll never know what lies inside his work, whether there’s validity to his acclaim, or whether the contents of his books reveal or further obfuscate whatever’s beneath his bitterness (if there even is anything to reveal).
The spoiler alert I’m about to give speaks to the way the film goes about denying us a clear vision of interiority. In said spoiler, I won’t be revealing a pivotal event, but rather a piece of inflated verbiage delivered by a parodically authorial narrator (voiced by man of many voices Eric Bogosian). As Philip, the film’s titular miserable narcissist, walks down a street alone after having been told by his ex-girlfriend that she wants him out of her life completely, the narrator says:
From this day forward, Philip would never invest that much of himself in anybody else. Instead, [he’d live] the rest of his life unwilling to so much as consider emotional honesty, and deeply wary of those that attempted to get close to him, a pattern of behavior that ultimately left him an isolated and emotionless specter, forever remaining a mystery even to himself.
It’s interesting, even perfect, that Alex Ross Perry picked Jason Schwartzman — a, dare I say, under-nuanced actor — for the part. He plays snobbery with stereotyped broadness paralleling Willy Wonka‘s Veruca Salt — he gets the tone right, and he’s utterly capable of being upsettingly cruel, but he provides no insight into the underlying humanity that, due to whatever insecurities, causes his character’s rancor. We pretty much know that, before his success, he was slightly more likable and personable, and that being published and thereafter recognized in a revered publication’s listicle got to his very susceptible head. But nothing in Schwartzman’s performance itself suggests this — or suggests he ever could have been a real human — this information, too, is coming from the narrator. And, since the narrator’s academic earnestness always ends up sounding far too tongue-in-cheek to truly be earnest, we’re left in the same place we started with Philip: very much on the outside. According to the final line of the movie, of course, Philip, too, is on the outside of himself.
To replicate its impenetrable main character, the movie only reveals the symbolic covers of authors’ works, covers that immediately make you think of very specific real-life authors, and the stylistic changes the literary world has seen since the ’70s. The covers don’t, however, reveal anything essential about these characters; rather, they reveal another mask, the ways graphic design has helped them tailor their images as literary giants (or rising ones). These simulacra were such an important part of the film that Slate did an inspired interview with the designer and director Alex Ross Perry on the concepts behind the book titles/cover art (for books such as Madness and Women, Some People Are Decent, and I, Zimmerman).
To the movie’s credit, the three layers of based-on-Philip-Rothness that we have to wade through to understand the origins of these characters makes everything — from the narration to the extent of Philip’s meanness to the nostalgic grain with which the film was shot — seem dubious. Distortedly based on Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer (about an author named Zuckerman), which itself was Roth’s own semi-distorted self-portrait, it not only shatters Roth into two misanthropic characters — Philip (the connection here is obvious), and his impersonable mentor, Ike Zimmerman (the Zuckerman connection… you get it) — but also injects the author into the aesthetic of the film: a eulogistically reference-y pseudo-ode to all things “literary” (and male). Roth has, over the years, made statements that have cast a self-reflexive veil of pretty obsolescence on his work, such as his declaration of the death of the novel a few years ago.
Aesthetically, the film plants us in world of fuzzy infinite regress in its examination of the hyper-masculine novelist’s self-examination — he’s the intentionally hollow result of a filmmaker’s vision of a fictional author looking at himself as part of a narrative of a real-life author looking at himself. When, at the end of the film, the narrator utters the lines quoted above, we’re not sure if they’re coming from Philip looking back on his own life, or from Philip exaggerating his own callousness for the purposes of good “literature,” or, perhaps, simply from a narrator placed in the film by writer-director Alex Ross Perry to suggest an internal life that’s not really there, outside of what a narrator can desperately try to suggest. The narration is at once ludicrously stuffy but potent: it satirizes a literary style while also using it to make Listen Up Philip a better, fuller film. What’s perhaps the most noteworthy is, while giving body to the film, the film underscores Philip’s two-dimensionality with the notion that he needs added narration to seem like a person.
The medium Philip uses to gain success and acclaim, and to further fluff his ego, is also the one that brings both him and us further from knowing who or what he really is, while that which ultimately brings Llewyn Davis down is his rebellious-teenish unwillingness to play the game and deviate from his soul-mining music. The horrific alienation we see in Llweyn’s road trip from New York to Chicago could be the result of the extremes of renown and impoverished obscurity that splits American artists (we could delve into a lack of governmental funding of the arts… but we won’t): though in some ways they may seem alike, they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. Philip’s soullessness has likely led him to write fascinatingly biting novels — and he’s successful, and knows when to suck up. Llewyn Davis refuses to do so, and his soulfulness holds him back. The idea that Philip’s novels might provide the same insight into a soul as Llewyn’s music is both unlikely and moot: we’ll never know. We’ll only see his covers.
And while one film implies perhaps too much “soul” and the other implies too little, these extremes both amount to their protagonists seeming like, well, assholes. By the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, the viewer might feel defeated by the character’s petty, dumb fate, might sympathize, might even think, “That’s someone with whom I could definitely see myself in a tender but unhappy relationship, as long as he keeps singing.” By the end of Philip, you’ll find yourself feeling the same prismatic catharsis that Elisabeth Moss, who plays Philip’s girlfriend Ashley (until she… stops playing his girlfriend), expresses when Philip walks out her door and out of her life.