If you didn’t see Alex Ross Perry‘s “The Color Wheel,” you missed a relentlessly savage and frequently hilarious depiction of a brother and sister next to whom you would never, ever want to be seated on a long flight. Perry’s new film “Listen Up Philip” may boast more lavish production values — famous names, color cinematography instead of black-and-white — but it’s no less blistering.
Most of us probably wouldn’t want to spend time with Perry’s characters in real life, but observing them in the writer-director’s unflinching and pungently funny films provides real pleasure for audiences open to watching bad behavior followed by massive rationalizations.
This time, our vexing protagonist is Philip (Jason Schwartzman), a young novelist who’s about to publish his second book. He’s first seen telling off an old college girlfriend who never believed in his ability to make a living writing; the experience is so pleasurable, Philip calls up another old friend so he can tell him off for a similar low-level betrayal.
Philip condescends to everyone in his circle — including publishers, photographers, and literary groupies — except for literary lion Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a Philip Roth-ian author who senses a kindred spirit in this up-and-comer. (Not for nothing does Teddy Blanks’ title font call to mind the original editions of “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Further kudos to Blanks, incidentally, for creating some of the best fake book covers since “The Royal Tenenbaums.”)
As Philip sabotages his relationship with photographer Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) — Perry wisely and effectively hands a middle chunk of the narrative to her — we come to see how a lifetime of burnt bridges and bad faith has destroyed any chance for Ike to have a meaningful bond with his adult daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter).
Here’s the thing, though: as abrasive and narcissistic as Philip can be, he’s not always wrong. Many of his observations about the people around him are absolutely spot-on, but he expresses those opinions in such a nasty way that you find yourself wincing even when you’re agreeing.
Among its many successes, Perry’s script should be studied as an example of when and how to use narration. For so many movies, a voice-over is an obvious crutch (when it’s not flat-out emergency duct tape), but here we get a detached, third-person narration (read by Eric Bogosian) with a literary and unsentimental tone that matches what we’d expect to read in one of Philip’s novels. It’s appropriate and effective without ever feeling like an after-the-fact fix.
Nobody does love-me-hate-me quite like Schwartzman, one of this generation’s masters of the kind of insult humor that’s caustic to the recipient while reflecting the insulter’s hidden frailty. He makes Philip thoroughly watchable even when we’re ready to throw him out of a moving car. With her work here and in the summer indie sleeper “The One I Love,” Moss makes it clear that the impending finale of “Mad Men” just means more opportunities for her to create intricately-crafted characters on the big screen.
Perry could, if he wanted, do a whole sequel about Pryce and Ritter’s characters; these supporting players are imbuing such richness in their work that they could easily take center stage.
Remembering the arguments I had with some people over “The Color Wheel,” I can predict that “Listen Up Philip” isn’t going to be for all tastes; if you’ve ever sat in a focus group and said, “I wish the characters were more likable,” this is not the movie for you. Those willing to commit to a fascinating story about talented and intelligent people who can also be selfish, vulnerable, strong-headed, short-sighted, and emotionally needy, however, will want to pull this one off the shelf.