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Philip Roth: The Movie

The font, the women, the self-indulgence to hit big screen

Liel Leibovitz
January 21, 2014

Heard the one about the Jewish writer who was very neurotic and enmeshed with women he was too self-centered to engage in anything resembling a nurturing relationship and then sought solace in the summer country home of an older Jewish writer he had always idolized? You know, the one named Philip?

Not Roth, of course—whatever gave you that idea?—but Philip Lewis Friedman, portrayed by Jason Schwartzman in the indie movie Listen Up Philip, which debuts this week at Sundance. Unless, that is, you insist that the font the trailer uses to display the movie’s title is identical to the iconic one used on the cover of Portnoy’s Complaint, or that the whole bit about a young Jewish writer taking shelter in the summer home of his older Jewish mentor is basically the plot for The Ghost Writer, or that you can’t seriously have Jason Schwartzman play a self-indulged novelist named Philip without evoking the Old Man from New Jersey.

It’s too soon to tell—all we’ve got to go on is the trailer—but Listen Up Philip may actually be the best adaptation of a Philip Roth book ever filmed, precisely because it is not based on a Philip Roth book. Roth, as Adam Kirsch rightly noted in an excellent recent article, is the “true protagonist” of all of Roth’s books, a conceit that works reasonably well in a medium as amenable to long streaks of self-gratification as the novel but less so in one, film, which leans heavily on the unfurling of plot. The only way to make Philip Roth compelling on screen, then, is to make Philip Roth the protagonist, not vaguely and circuitously and as part of some post-modern sleight of hand but directly, unabashedly, and with all of Jason Schwartzman’s gift for furtive stares and artful narcissism. This is something that Richard Benjamin could never achieve as the young Alexander Portnoy, and that eluded even Ben Kingsley and Anthony Hopkins as latter day Roth manqués. As Roth himself had demonstrated throughout his career, this level of self indulgence demands the flights of fancy only fiction can provide. Goodbye Roth, then, and hello Friedman. Now vee may perhaps to begin, yes?

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.