As we all know, narcissism is a key trait in any artistic endeavor, particularly writing. Following up his acclaimed 2011 film, The Color Wheel, Alex Ross Perry chooses the most interesting of all neurotic subject matters: the writer--with specific regard to Philip Roth. Though, of course, a "fictionalized" account, we are given Roth as the re-imagined Philip Lewis Friedman--an appropriately douche bag name--played by Jason Schwartzman, in arguably his most meaningful performance to date (which isn't to say that his acting is necessarily amazing so much that he falls very neatly into the role of someone detached and depressed).
After the successful publication of his first novel, Friedman quickly rises to meteoric heights in the New York literary world, taking the opportunity to tell former girlfriends and college friends who he believed never supported him exactly what he thinks about them. Imbued with a natural air of self-righteousness and superiority, Friedman is the gross archetypal cliche of a narcissist at his worse: delusions of grandeur, an inability to see outside his own consciousness and the unwavering belief that he is better and more worthwhile than any other human being. His rocky relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss, continuing to hedge her bets for a post-Mad Men career), seems unfathomable considering how little he actually cares for her, and yet still needs to harbor the illusion of being humanly connected. Upon publishing his second novel, Obidant, Friedman is invited to reputed, well-respected author Ike Zimmerman's (Jonathan Pryce, in the Saul Bellow role) Upstate New York home.
Zimmerman and Friedman (the Jewish connection undeniable with their names placed next to one another) immediately hit it off, both feeding off one another's self-involvement and detachment from women as anything other than folly-laden distractions. The discovery that the "caretaker" of Zimmerman's home, Melanie (Krysten Ritter), is actually Zimmerman's daughter simultaneously leaves Friedman with greater admiration for how removed Zimmerman is from personal emotions and somewhat terrified that he could cause the same level of psychological damage to another human being. As Melanie points out one day while sitting on the couch with Friedman, "No one likes to made to feel as meaningless as they are." But this is exactly what Philip does, and feels must be done in order to be a "great writer."
The film is, in fact, at its best when it tapers off to show us Ashley's emotional roller coaster in the wake of finally deciding to ban Philip from her life for good. At first averse to the notion of being actually alone as opposed to figuratively alone, Ashley experiences depression and disinterest in her work. Luckily, there are cats that can be adopted. When she finally comes out of the other side of their break-up, which Philip deems merely a temporary separation while he accepts a teaching job at a college upstate, she is stronger than ever. Indeed, this is the most redeeming aspect of the film--the fact that at least one person experiences a metamorphosis.
And then there is the aloof, nonpartisan narration of Eric Bogosian, as he describes everything the characters are thinking and feeling (but in a manner that manages to not come across as annoying). This adds to the sense that nothing in this life is significant, no matter how much our two giant narcissists believe they (and their work) is.