The most impressive aspect of Listen Up Philip, the third film from writer-director Alex Ross Perry (but his first to secure any sort of traction in the UK), is that it takes a well-worn and frankly alienating genre – the New York middle class dramedy – and makes something fresh and continually enjoyable with it. Whilst this is not a new idea, with Noah Baumbach an expert in wringing drama and laughs from absurdly slight urban problems, Listen Up Philip’s cast and writing means it still comes highly recommended.
The eponymous Philip is played by Jason Schwartzman, in one of his best performances, a writer whose first book was critically well-received and has a second one about to launch. Despite receiving a poor response to his new novel in the New York Times, one of Philip’s literary idols, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), loves his latest work, and invites Philip to stay in his country house to revive his own writing career. What really separates Listen Up from other films of its ilk is that both of these men are unrepentantly horrible. Philip is arrogant, emotionally cowardly, and self-destructive, whilst Ike is a terrible father who refuses to act his age. Yet, whilst Ike is properly irredeemable, you can never fully hate Philip, whose hilariously brazen lack of humility can even be endearing, or at least enviable in the right context.
Where Philip and Ike are at their most harmful is in their relationship with the women in their lives. Successful photographer Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) is Philip’s girlfriend at the start of the film, but is left unfulfilled and confused by their relationship, whilst Ike’s daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) is clearly suffering from deep-seated neglect issues. Refreshingly, the problems of the female characters are not just there to be reacted to and solved by the men, and much of the second act is told from Ashley’s perspective as she learns how to appreciate her own company and sometimes value her own happiness above other people’s. The switch in protagonist is a fittingly novelistic technique in a movie in which every character is, in their own field, published, and features an omniscient voiceover in the third person.
Despite the anger and dissatisfaction present in every character in Listen Up Philip, it’s also a very funny film, with incredibly sharp dialogue and some wonderful visual gags. Aided by strong performances by a reliably excellent cast, with Moss in particular standing out (she gets plenty of extended close ups in which she conveys a huge variety of subtle, wordless emotions), it’s one of the best written films of 2015 so far and proves Perry as a talent to watch.