Perry spends two-thirds of Listen Up Philip showing us how impossible, yet weirdly compelling, Philip and Zimmerman are: The director embroiders, with increasingly intricate layers of dry jokes and selfish acts, their two-sided tapestry of horribleness. The obvious model for Zimmerman is half-loathed, half-revered lit-world legend Philip Roth, who has a reputation for being a terrible person that most likely has seeped into his detractors' views of his novels.
Perry clearly has a great deal of love for Roth: The movie's funniest touch is a series of fake Rothian book covers, a half-satirical, half-affectionate mini-survey of '60s, '70s, and '80s book design, with titles like Madness & Women and The Shrug. But mostly, the awfulness of Zimmerman and Philip, pure and simple, is what interests him, and Perry doesn't pass judgment on it. Instead, he simply regards it, like he's studying a grouchy toad on a lily pad. The novelty gradually wears off. It doesn't help that Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams are way too fond of tight close-ups; these are probably meant to reinforce the characters' claustrophobic self-regard, but they only made me feel like Pepé Le Pew's cat conquest, desperate to wriggle out of their artificially intense embrace.