So rueful and wise is writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” about artistic ambition, youthful arrogance and middle-aged regrets, it comes as a shock to discover that Perry himself is not yet even 30. That gives this remarkably achieved feature a precocity nearly equal to that of the prodigal fiction writer who rests at its center, honing his craft at the expense of any and all meaningful relationships in his life. It’s a familiar tale, but one told by Perry with immense filmmaking verve and novelistic flourish, and acted by an exceptional ensemble cast. “Philip” won’t curry much favor with those critics and auds who routinely castigate the Coen brothers and Noah Baumbach for their dearth of “likable” characters, but those with slightly more jaundiced eyes will feel right at home. By any measure, the pic formally announces Perry as one of the most promising young talents on the indie scene.
Actually Perry’s third feature, following the micro-budget, Pynchon-esque “Impolex” in 2009 and the more widely screened “The Color Wheel” in 2011, “Listen Up Philip” reps a quantum leap for the filmmaker in terms of its narrative ambitions, the complexity of its characters, and the confidence with which Perry handles his “name” cast. That includes a tailor-made role for Jason Schwartzman, whose Philip Lewis Friedman could be “Rushmore’s” Max Fischer a decade down the road, or a junior version of Jeff Daniels’ bilious, self-loathing author from “The Squid and the Whale.”
When we first meet him, Philip is a New York literary star on the rise, with a hit debut novel (“Join the Street Parade”) behind him and a second (sporting the suitably pretentious title of “Obidant”) about to be published. But thanks to that curse common to writers, Philip is anything but happy or well adjusted, sure that his success is doomed to be short-lived, and indifferent or outright hostile to anyone who doesn’t share his self-centric worldview — including his live-in photographer girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss, excellent).
These early passages of “Listen Up Philip” rush at the viewer in short, staccato scenes accompanied by the running voiceover of an omniscient narrator (Eric Bogosian, a la Alec Baldwin in “The Royal Tenenbaums”), which creates the sense that Philip is forever transfiguring his life into fiction, even as it is happening to him in the moment. And Perry, who cast himself as a snarkier-than-thou aspiring writer in “The Color Wheel,” sets up one hilariously egocentric moment after the next: Scheduled to set off on a promotional tour, Philip decides (to his publisher’s understandable alarm) to forgo all publicity and let “Obidant” speak for itself; asked to write a magazine profile of a fellow young writer, Philip agrees, only to quickly sabotage things by proposing to his subject that they get into a fistfight. At every step, Schwartzman is wonderfully callow and oblivious, like a spoiled only child still throwing tantrums in his 30s and expecting to get away with it.
The movie comes to focus on Philip’s burgeoning friendship with one of his literary heroes, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a prolific ’70s novelist celebrated for his bestselling “Madness and Women,” and a clear surrogate for another Philip (Roth). Zimmerman (the name nods to Roth’s own longtime alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman) takes a paternal interest in the younger man of letters, inviting him for an extended stay at his upstate home, and eventually securing him a teaching post at a small liberal-arts college. Perhaps he sees in Philip something of himself, or at least an eager protege to whom he can proffer such wisdom as: “Don’t make yourself any more miserable than you need. Leave that to the women you love. That’s pretty much what they’re there for.” It’s a role that fits Pryce, who gave one of his best performances as the writer Lytton Strachey in “Carrington,” even more snugly than Philip does Schwartzman — the literary lion well past his prime, deeply in love with the sound of his own voice, and a portrait of where Philip himself might end up in a few decades’ time.
But this isn’t just Philip’s story. In a risky structural device that owes more to literature than to cinema (specifically, per Perry, to William Gaddis’ legendary debut novel, “The Recognitions”), “Listen Up Philip” puts its title character on hold for a lengthy mid-film stretch, shifting its focus back to Ashley as she picks up the pieces of her post-Philip life. Then Perry does the same thing for Zimmerman, whom we see battling writer’s block and haphazardly trying to smooth out his fraught relationship with his own adult daughter (Krysten Ritter). The cumulative effect is like listening a series of inspired solos by the members of a jazz ensemble, and it makes “Listen Up Philip” that rare movie in which no character feels subordinate.
In Philip, Perry has created the kind of character sure to repel viewers who crave conventional heroes and recoil at seeing their own worst tendencies splayed large on the screen. At every step, he makes incredibly poor decisions, shows staggering insensitivity to anyone else’s feelings, and seems congenitally unable to learn from past mistakes. Yet it’s to Perry and Schwartzman’s credit that we also see how Philip’s ego, while inflated to massive proportions, retains an eggshell fragility: the driven perfectionist who craves affirmation; the hapless relationship partner who nevertheless craves the company of another. If that doesn’t make the character entirely sympathetic, it does make him eminently relatable, at least for those who believe it is one of the functions of art to reflect life as we live it and not merely as we wish it to be.
“Listen Up Philip” feels at once timeless in its sense of the tension between a writer’s life and work, and very much of the moment in its nostalgia for hardcover books with graphically elaborate dust jackets (a whole series of which have been custom-designed for the movie by Teddy Blanks and Anna Bak-Kvapil), and for a New York where intellectual rather than financial life set the pulse of the city. Certainly, the city seems alive with a warm, bohemian glow in the exquisite Super 16mm lensing of d.p. Sean Price Williams, whose lucid handheld camera bobs and weaves much like a pen in a writer’s hand.