With films like The Color Wheel, Listen Up, Philip and Queen of Earth, writer-director Alex Ross Perry swiftly established himself as indie-cinema's premier misanthrope, as if the literate class of Woody Allen movies had been body-snatched by caustic malcontents of John Cassavetes movies. Shot in 16mm, mostly in interiors free of electronic distraction, Perry's films are defiantly analog in their four-walled intensity, committed to unpacking the restive desires of characters who act on impulse and often look ugly in the process. They have humor, sophistication, and insight, but they don't cozy themselves up to the audience. (When Perry was hired to script a live-action Winnie-the-Pooh movie for Disney, his fans chuckled at the irony.)
There's a moment early in Perry's new ensemble piece, Golden Exits, that winks at the very different film it's going to be. While Naomi (Emily Browning), a pretty 25-year-old from Australia, is lunching at a deli counter with her new boss, a middle-aged Brooklyn archivist Nick (Adam Horowitz), she idly mentions writing non-fiction about everyday lives. "People never make films about ordinary people who don't do anything," she says. As the type of guy who describes the solitary burdens of archiving as "thrilling," Nick eagerly retorts, "They're out there. I can take you to some." If the film were any more self-referential, Nick and Naomi would walk out of the screen, grab a popcorn, and watch themselves.
In its refusal to engage in the conflicts it proposes, Golden Exits is less a drama than a state of mind, like Midlife Crisis in lights. (Though Perry is just 33, his work is precociously fretful enough to suggest someone at least 10 years older.) The young adults in the film are uncertain about their destinies, the older adults are uncertain about whether the paths they've chosen are right ones, and together they're in a holding pattern, co-existing uneasily until they've figured out what to do. The enigmatic title hints at the possibility of happiness, but only if they can escape their current predicament. Which Perry doesn't make easy to do.
Set roughly over springtime in Brooklyn, with titles marking specific dates of rather uneventful days, the film opens with Naomi arriving from Australia and instantly destabilizing two different marriages at once. When Nick introduces her to his wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), a psychologist, and her freewheeling sister Gwen (Mary-Louise Parker), the two siblings are unsettled by her beauty, mainly because Nick has a bout with infidelity in their past. Meanwhile, Naomi's sole connection in New York is Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), a music producer who knew her briefly as a kid and offers to meet her again as a favor to his mother. But Buddy's wife (Analeigh Tipton), too, wonders about his feelings for Naomi and suspects he's been seeing her on the sly. The two families don't know each other, but their lives begin to intersect and parallel in messy and fascinating ways.
By description, Golden Exits sounds like the set-up for a combustible drama, rife with heartbreak and betrayal and consuming passions. But Perry is almost perverse in his unwillingness to follow through on any of these options, because he's more interested in characters who are tiptoeing right to the edge of the line. Their uncertainty is what Perry is seeking to examine more than the actions we expect them to take. The film may well be about ordinary people who don't do anything, but that doesn't mean it's free from turbulence, however much it's internalized more than dramatized.
Working again with his excellent cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, Perry favors close-ups that attempt to access the characters' mental state and finds other tools to do it, too, like a scene where Alyssa is so preoccupied by her husband's behavior that her patient's words are rendered like the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon. He also links the ensemble through a rigorous series of dissolves and fades, drawing elegant parallels between some characters who never cross paths otherwise.
And yet the steadfast refusal to follow through on the premise condemns the film to a state of dramatic constipation. There's a limit to how much Golden Exits can be appreciated for the notes it doesn't play before you start to pine for the friction that gives Perry's other work such vitality. As the lonely and gossipy Gwen, Parker seems deliciously eager to start trouble for sport, but she's relegated to the sidelines, more commentator than actor. The Perry of old chooses to sit this one out, too.