“Heavy-handed and dramatic. Minus five points,” Jess (Analeigh Tipton) proclaims to Sam (Lily Rabe) from off-screen as Sam laments her aimless thirtysomething life. You can hear Tipton smile as she speaks; you can see Rabe grin through her laughter in response. What you can’t at all discern is whether Alex Rossy Perry is flipping you the bird from behind the camera. A surplus of the dialogue in his new movie, Golden Exits, matches Tipton’s description of Rabe’s self-rebuke, being entirely on the nose and front-loaded with middle aged New York City ennui that never pays off. You wouldn’t be unreasonable for feeling like Perry’s trolling us.
The other option is B) that perhaps Perry has already peaked as a filmmaker and as a writer. Say what you like about the squirmy discomforts of The Color Wheel, the unchecked toxicity of Listen Up Philip or the unbearable, haunting tension of Queen of Earth—those movies have a point. They have momentum. Bluntly, they also have conflict of which Golden Exits is absent. Instead of telling a story, Perry assembles a clipshow of miserable aging Brooklynites whining about their wasted lives or trying to convince themselves and anyone in earshot that they’re happy, whether with their careers or their relationships. If the film has a silver lining, it’s that Perry still knows how to shoot a movie: Deep focus shots, slow zooms and his normal array of close-ups give Golden Exits uncomfortable intimacy. Uncomfortable intimacy is at least something.
That something is wrapped around a lot of nothing. The basic conceit of Golden Exits is intriguingly winding: Naomi (Emily Browning) flies into New York on a work visa, assisting archivist Nick (Adam Horowitz) in his painstaking, monotonous daily routine of cataloging the lives of others. Nick is married to Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), who takes to Naomi like a cat to water, while her sister, Gwen (Mary Louise-Parker), shepherds the young woman toward self-hood. As Naomi learns Nick’s trade, she occasionally drops in on Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), whom she knows through her mother, who happens to be friends with Buddy’s mother. Golden Exits sets itself up as a tangled web of personal connections, each of them reminding us that we live in an increasingly small world, but the threads go nowhere. The narrative’s skein is sloppy.
If the rest of the movie was tolerable, maybe the knots Perry ties wouldn’t matter, though “tolerable” is a subjective term: Golden Exits could revel in its melancholy so long as the melancholy had purpose, or even shape. What’s especially frustrating is Perry’s refusal to establish his arcs, carry them out to logical conclusions or at the very least permit his characters to express what they need to express to the people they need to express it to. The film holds back at every opportunity possible.
The movie’s reticence feels antithetical to its author’s filmography. Perry has made his name in part on his enthusiasm for staging heated disputes between his characters. In Perry’s world, people don’t quarrel so much as they corrode each other’s souls. Not so in Golden Exits: Everyone is so subdued by their own frequently self-imposed gloom that the film’s running time grinds away at the pace of an infinitely longer production. What passes for plot here tends to find Naomi at its center, cajoled by the cast’s women or lusted after by the cast’s men. Browning has an ethereal, even otherworldly quality on her own. The ways in which the film’s supporting characters, and arguably everyone here in support to her lead, use her, regard her or fetishize her uncomfortably reinforce that quality. They scarcely see her as a person. After awhile, the movie adopts their view, denying her opportunities for growth and forcing her to serve the rest of the cast as a repository for their misplaced resentments and regrets.
Nobody else in Golden Exits registers as human, either, even as Perry takes a collection of authentic human concerns and filters them through his artist’s lens. He tries, but the fruit of his labor is altogether trying: There’s only so much you can stomach of men unwilling to accept that they aren’t getting younger and women stuck in paralytic states of dissatisfaction without wanting to roll your eyes clean out of their sockets. Coming from a first-timer, Golden Exits might suggest promise. Coming from Perry, it nearly reads as self-satire, the epitome of overly dry and thoroughly hubristic indie filmmaking. Don’t let the indulgent chatter fool you. Here, Perry has nothing to say that’s worth listening to.
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Starring: Emily Browning, Adam Horowitz, Jason Schwartzman, Chloë Sevigny, Analeigh Tipton, Mary Louise-Parker, Lily Rabe
Release Date: February 9, 2018
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.