Listen Up Philip

[In theaters and Video on Demand.]

With its omniscient narrator, sparkling, literate dialogue, and insufferable white male protagonist, “Listen Up Philip” is more like a novel than a film (and in fact more like a novel than many novels I’ve read). Written and directed with astonishing sure-footedness by Alex Ross Perry, this acerbic comedy is, fittingly, about a novelist — one Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), an anxious, snippy wunderkind whose first book rocketed him to stardom in New York literary circles. He is now, according to the critics, “notable.”

Philip’s photographer girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), is fed up with him, painfully in love yet quickly realizing he’s toxic. (“I hope this will be good for us,” Philip says of some idea, “but especially for me.”) Philip’s mentor, a Philip Roth-like novelist named Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), encourages him to strive for writerly excellence even as he himself exemplifies the sort of callous, lonely crank Philip might one day become. Ike’s daughter (Krysten Ritter), who has suffered from her father’s selfishness, sums it up for Philip: “I hope you learn to take responsibility for yourself before you destroy the lives of people who care about it.”

The film begins as Philip’s much-labored-over second novel is about to be released, reigniting his neuroses and narcissism. He’s at the crossroads in his life where he will either get his act together or succumb permanently to his ego, either check himself or wreck himself. To give us more insight into Philip’s situation, Perry does what many novelists do: he sidelines the main character for a while and focuses on his loved ones, first Ashley and then Ike, adding layers to the underlying human drama and deepening the relationships between the characters. We miss Philip’s bracing presence, but all three central performances are sharp, insightful portrayals of intelligent, wounded people. Perry’s use of 16mm film stock and a hip jazz-combo score give the movie an underground 1970s feel. It’s like a lost collaboration between Woody Allen and John Cassavetes, filtered through a lens of semi-ironic nostalgia.

A- (1 hr., 48 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some sexual dialogue.)

[Expanded from a review published in Portland Mercury.]