Alex Ross Perry's wince-inducing black comedy about two repellent literary blowhards marks the arrival of a major new talent

In real life, you could probably spend around five minutes with Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) before you’d start thinking about hurling either him or yourself down the nearest fire escape. But from behind the safety screen of cinema, his company’s pure pleasure.

Philip is a low-flying gargoyle on the New York literary scene whose second novel may be about to lift him to more rarefied altitudes. We’re given to understand that Philip is a good writer – or good enough, at least. But it soon becomes clear that, within the book trade, he’s a real world-beater in two highly competitive fields: misanthropy and egomania.

When we first meet him, he’s spending an enjoyable day settling old scores: firstly with an ex-girlfriend, whose face he’s keen to rub in his coming success. “It sounds like you’re bragging,” she says, after he reels off his publisher’s plans for his new, apparently star-making novel. “That’s because I am,” he snaps back, without missing a beat.

Later, he stops by his publisher to announce he’s pulling out of his own book tour because he wants the work to speak for itself, and then tries to engineer a Hemingway-esque fist-fight for a magazine profile he’s writing on an equally awful contemporary.

Philip lives with his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), a successful photographer, but seems incapable of taking an interest in her life, and drops her at the first opportunity to go and live with the bestselling author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a subtle, Philip Roth-like grotesque who’s ensconced in a sprawling farmhouse upstate. (Compounding the Rotherie, this section plays like a riff on Roth’s 1979 novel The Ghost Writer.)

The idea is that the trip will be a working getaway for Philip, though it soon devolves into a mutually poisonous backslapping session for these two deeply unlovely funhouse-mirror visions of writerly success.

Bubbling away throughout is a dense, swingeingly serious narration performed by Eric Bogosian, which seems to unspool directly from Philip’s head, as if he’s writing his own life story – in the third person, naturally – as he lives it.

The film doesn’t have a single remotely sympathetic character, and its sense of humour is so lip-chappingly dry every ticket should come with a complimentary jar of Vaseline. Basically, if you enjoyed Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg or Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums but wished those directors had eased off the schmaltz a bit, Philip is the scumbag for you.

This outstanding black comedy of bad manners is the third feature from the young American filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, and only at the end when you wincingly reflect on what you’ve seen do you realise what a Niagara-straddling tightrope-walk the whole thing has been. 

Listen Up Philip skewers literary preciousness with Genghis Khan-like zeal, but the film itself is, very proudly, both literary and precious. For a sizeable chunk of its second act, the film drops Philip’s story entirely and refocuses on Ashley instead, which is the kind of novelistic structural trickery that’s hellishly difficult to pull off on-screen.

It was also shot on Super 16mm film, mostly hand-held and at close quarters, which gives it a highly self-conscious vintage look. Yet the film is written with such supreme elegance and shot with such vibrant and absorbing beauty that it breezily gets away with everything its characters try and fail to.

What’s more, Perry somehow allows his cast enough space in this meticulously authored environment to work creative wonders of their own. Schwartzman’s wan gaze and flair for deadpan comedy combine to create an impregnable aura of self-regard; it’s hard to think of another role that’s suited him this perfectly since Rushmore, his 1998 debut.

Pryce seizes on a role full of fine-grained unpleasantness and makes hay with it, while Moss, who’s used to middle-distance simmering on the television series Mad Men, thrives in grainy close-up. There’s a 30-second shot of her face seconds after an unhappy encounter with Philip in her flat, that’s a masterclass in screen acting: anger, disbelief, fear, uncertainty and relief, each one dovetailing perfectly with the next.

Whether Listen Up Philip is a significant step up for Perry or just business as usual, I can’t tell you: his previous two features, Impolex and The Colour Wheel, have yet to be released in the UK. But either way, this film signals a notable arrival, and the time to acquire a taste for him is now.