Some audiences just don’t cotton to claustrophobic movies with flawed characters you love to hate. Pussies. They should stick to The Best of Me, the latest in candied cinematic marshmallows from the overactive laptop of Nicholas Sparks. Hardier souls are directed to Listen Up Philip, a poisonous valentine to the New York literary scene from writer-director Alex Ross Perry. In his third feature, following 2009’s Impolex and 2011’s The Color Wheel, Perry, 30, offers a stinging portrait of writing as one of the bleeding arts. And he’s bloody funny about it in the bargain.
Jason Schwartzman is deadpan dynamite as Philip Lewis Friedman, the author of a hit first novel called Join the Street Parade. On the eve of publishing his second novel, carrying the even more pretentious title of Obidant, Philip seems determined to shoot himself in the foot. An unseen narrator, voiced by Eric Bogosian, offers a sourly detached view of Philip as he self-destructs. One hapless victim of Philip’s combo of self-love and self-loathing is his girlfriend Ashley (a superb Elisabeth Moss), a photographer whose professional and personal salvation may lie in life with Philip not being in it. The chief enabler of Philip’s burgeoning ego is Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a roaring lion of art and arrogance based on Philip Roth. (The very name, Zimmerman, evokes Roth literary surrogate Nathan Zuckerman.) Pryce runs with the role in a biting, bedeviled performance that reps the finest of his film career. It’s Ike who mentors Philip and gets him a teaching job at an upstate liberal-arts college where he can run haughty herd over lower beings.
In a daring move, Perry splits his focus among Philip, Ashley and Ike, letting us watch their lives play out with and without each other. I found the device as riveting as it is risky, bolstered by wildly evocative handheld, Super 16 millimeter camera work from the gifted Sean Price Williams. As the film shoves Philip, Ike and Ashley in our faces, the actors rise to challenge with fearless skill. Schwartzman, completing a trilogy of writers begun with the sublime Rushmore and HBO’s Bored To Death, holds nothing back in the tricky role of a rat bastard who fights a losing battle with the film’s topmost villain, narccissism. Listen Up Philip makes you laugh till its hurts. That’s the point. Screw you if you can’t take a joke.