"Listen Up Philip" might be the best movie you'll read this year. That's a paradox, but a working one: The latest from Alex Ross Perry ("The Color Wheel"), a gifted writer-director who likes to work in the margins, is literate in tone and literary in subject. It features an insufferable young novelist at its center, cascades of glowing, prose-y narration on the soundtrack, and, like all good works of fiction, it rattles around in your head after you've put it down. For a film, that's quite a trick.
From Stendhal to Updike to McInerney, novels have been full of aggravating men who are their own (and their girlfriends') worst enemies. Movies, hung up on retaining audience sympathy, are less so. Philip Lewis Friedman is something of a challenge, then — an entitled, even cruel writer who makes the Coen brothers' Llewyn Davis seem a model of decency and grace. Jason Schwartzman is a fine actor, but he has a knack for creating characters you want to punch in the face, and Philip, who has a second novel coming out and is intent on burning all his bridges, is almost marvelously obnoxious.
Especially to his live-in girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss of "Mad Men"), who, after three years, has had about enough. "Listen Up Philip" is in many ways a spry meditation on the writing and legacy of Philip Roth — even the film's title can be read as a summoning to accounts. The title-credit fonts are oh-so-"Portnoy" and there's a grizzled Roth-ian mentor, novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), to school Philip in graduate-level boorishness.
Called to sit at the feet of the master in upstate New York, Philip ditches Ashley and settles in for an extended stay, teaching creative writing at a nearby college to make ends meet. Mostly, though, he's content to soak up lessons in self-absorption from Zimmerman, who lashes out against his bitter, brittle daughter (Krysten Ritter, superb) and fears he has lost his talent.
Why would anyone want to spend time with these people? Because they're fools with great gifts, and Perry almost lovingly explores the gulf between the beauty with which they create and the smallness with which they live. Are artists monomaniacs by default? Does the chase after perfection on the page leave them furious over the imperfections in life? "Listen Up Philip" is wise not to spell things out, letting its characters talk themselves into corners of comic miserableness and every so often heading out to remind us that other people exist.
When Philip leaves his girlfriend, most movies would follow — he's the main character, isn't he? Perry does something different and, in the context of a film (but not a novel), almost radical. He spends 20 minutes or so staying with Ashley as she works Philip out of her system over the course of a summer — redecorating their apartment, getting a cat, stepping out to bars. It's a generous move, and Moss responds with a truly generous performance, one that registers silently and tellingly on her face as she comes out from under the dark cloud of the relationship.
"Listen Up Philip" has a great deal of empathy for the women in the lives of these men who won't shut up: Ashley, Ike's daughter, a fellow professor (Joséphine de la Baume) Philip starts seeing, an openhearted writing student (Maïté Alina). All these glorious women, lost on wretched, ridiculous men! What makes the movie more than bearable — what makes it a small, lucid classic of human comedy, in fact — is Perry's understanding that the women will heal, eventually, while the men will never stop gnawing at themselves.
The film's narration, coolly intoned by Eric Bogosian, possesses all the distance and perspective Philip lacks. Flowing at length, as though the movie itself were being read to us, it leads us to a final moment that's pitiless and unexpectedly moving. "Listen Up Philip" is a portrait of a man condemned to the prison of himself while his writing sets others free.