Boys to men
Alex Ross Perry’s ‘Listen Up Philip’ and Noah Baumbach’s ‘While We’re Young’

Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young are films about young male artists who become involved in difficult relationships of patronage with older male artists. Listen Up Philip leans towards the younger man’s perspective, While We’re Young to the older’s; both films star male actors (Jason Schwartzman and Ben Stiller, respectively) who specialise in playing characters so deeply irritating that sometimes I wonder how they sleep at night. Though the men of Perry’s film are novelists and the men of Baumbach’s are filmmakers, their milieu is essentially the same: the intellectual elite of New York City.

In Listen Up Philip, Schwartzman plays the eponymous Philip, an ambitious young writer whose second novel is about to be released. In an early scene, Philip’s publisher warns him that the novel is set to receive a negative review in the New York Times, though the good news is that Philip has been included in a leading magazine’s “35 Under 35” list. The real-life parallels to the film’s many literary in-jokes are easy enough to spot, if you have enough interest in publishing to know or care what the jokes refer to. This, among other qualities, makes Listen Up Philip an uneven mixture of satire and homage: Perry seems equally exasperated by, and enamoured of, this competitive, egotistical, self-absorbed industry.

Those three adjectives (and others, far less flattering) could describe Philip, who enters the film talking at a rate of knots and rarely flags until the credits roll. Philip is an insufferable jerk, and Schwartzman plays him with the impermeable deadpan that he has brought to every role I have seen him in. Philip is not even flustered by meeting his match, the irascible Ike Zimmerman, a revered elder of American letters who has spent years in self-imposed rural isolation. Ike is an ageing narcissist who believes that lesser people (like his adult daughter Melanie, played by Krysten Ritter) have bled his creative powers dry. Only Philip seems worthy of his blessing.

Philip is invited for an extended stay at Ike’s upstate country house, where vintage whisky and the Corona typewriter are twin domestic gods. Philip accepts the invitation with alacrity, abandoning his New York girlfriend, photographer Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), for a chance to rub shoulders with the great man. Moss plays Ashley with real compassion, and her character is the only one in the film with any hint of a complex interior life. Ashley struggles not to go on loving Philip, even though she knows he’s an idiot.

Though Ashley lightens the air around Philip with a little bit of human decency, the film also lags in pace and humour when Philip and Ike are offscreen – they make an awful pair, so awful you want to keep watching them.

*

In Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, 40-something documentary filmmaker Josh (Ben Stiller) and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), make friends with 20-something filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his artisanal ice cream–making girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried). The real romance, though, is between Josh and Jamie, who, in Baumbach’s rather clumsy metaphor of generational conflict, represent different philosophies of documentary filmmaking.

Josh has been labouring for a decade on a complicated exposé of American power, filming lengthy interviews with academic Ira Mandelstam (Peter Yarrow), a Noam Chomsky–like figure. Josh is unwilling and unable to edit his footage into a watchable film, having succumbed to creative inertia. Jamie, meanwhile, is happy to play it fast and loose – his compact digital camera is always to hand, and he screens footage to his friends the day he films it.

Jamie and Darby are a pile-up of hipster cliches: they live in a converted warehouse, they play board games, they collect VHS tapes. At first, Josh and Cornelia are enlivened by the spontaneity of the younger pair, but as Jamie pursues a young Iraq War veteran for a film project, Josh begins to suspect that this youthful joie de vivre masks a hollow shell of calculation and narcissism. To complicate the generational conflict yet further, Cornelia is a film producer whose father, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), is another celebrated documentary director. Leslie adopts Jamie as his protégé, leaving Josh to stew.

There’s an element of truth to Baumbach’s critique of today’s young “creatives”, but not much more. Every generation throws up its hustlers masquerading as truth-tellers; Jamie is merely another, in contemporary costume. The plot of While We’re Young feels more like a nail on which Baumbach can hang an argument, staged with himself, about the role of a director and the nature of cinematic truth. It’s a worthwhile field of enquiry, made into a strangely self-satisfied film.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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