Films about writers and writing tend to place emphasis on the extremes of the discipline. There is little mileage in producing a movie where the main character is a solid and dependable writer who leads a normal life and meets his deadlines and fulfills his commitments. Or maybe that’s your thing. The new film from director Alex Ross Perry takes a look at the extremes of ego and inspiration for writers and what we get is something not entirely pleasant.
Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is seemingly in a good place. His second novel is about to be released, he is in a long term relationship with successful photographer Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) and his future is bright. Given this buoyancy to his life he decides a change of course is needed. Anger is an instrument which he uses in his writing process. He effectively bottles it up and releases it onto the page. Now he has found that he has had enough. He makes contact with some old friends and starts letting them know exactly what he feels about them. In effect, he is alienating himself. He finds faults with his girlfriend and as they grow more distant he starts a friendship with Ike (Jonathan Pryce) who acts as his mentor.
The principal thrust of the film appears to be the way in which art is produced. For great writing the author needs to be in a particular place mentally. He has to channel his emotions in a certain direction. For Philip this means becoming a self centred jerk. He doesn’t enjoy being controlled and actively pushes against it. When a photographer tries to set up certain shots Philip reacts strongly, letting everyone know how stupid the ideas are and what they will be doing. He doesn’t do it in an aggressive or personally abusive way. He just does it.
The only person he gets along with is Ike who is very much like an older version of Philip. Ike is at the point in his career where his work has been lauded and pilloried. Now he is searching for the spark of inspiration again. He sees there was a lot of himself in Philip and he hopes to get something from this relationship. To this end, he starts to act out along similar lines to Philip. He persuades Philip to leave New York, to escape the noise of the city. It is a wonderful place for inspiration but a lousy place for peace to work.
The core characters in the film are deeply unlikable. That isn’t a bad thing. They are supposed to be. It does make it more difficult to engage with them. At first, Philip’s remarks come across as refreshingly honest. After a while you want him to lighten up a bit. Schwartzman plays him perfectly. His performance is spot on in terms of the way the character behaves. He is dead pan in his delivery which leads to a certain amount of discomfort as you feel for the person at the other end of his comments.
Jonathan Pryce is like the looser version of Philip. Older and more tired, he has that look that comes with age and the realisation that stuff does’t matter as much. He is a little bit more unkempt than his young friend and is the embodiment of what Philip will become if he continues on his path of isolation.
The only sympathetic character is played by Elisabeth Moss. She appears to be the most normal of all of the characters. She has found a balance between creativity and living a balance life with friends and colleagues. Even so, she has her own problems and tends to drift into her own isolation.
The film is beautifully shot. It has an older look to it which comes from being shot on film rather than digital. The camera work is mostly hand held which gives a feeling of intimacy to the proceedings and make s the audience feel as if they are actually in the unfolding drama. The film uses a narrator to set up the scenes as the film moves through the seasons. He informs the audience of the back story to each section and in a very straight and dry way it is a humorous addition to the film.
Overall, a film populated by unpleasant characters that still are able to engage with the audience. Recommended.