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. 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. Philip's photographer girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), is fed up with him, while his 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 become.
Like many a novelist, Perry sidelines his main character for a while and gives us Ashley's and then Ike's point of view, adding layers to the underlying human drama. 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.