Early in Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, Nick (Adam Horovitz) tells his new, Australian assistant, Naomi (Emily Browning), that the smallness of his life is freeing. Nick lives and works on the same Brooklyn block, enjoying the insularity of a routine that includes lunch at a local deli and a beer at a bar after work while reading. Nick’s an archivist, and his current assignment finds him employed by his sister-in-law, Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker), who resents his presence in her family. The coziness of Nick’s life is embodied by his office, a nest of stacked books and binders of antiquated clutter that will instantly communicate a notion of safety to readers and writers. When Naomi asks Nick how he can handle the hermetic nature of his day-to-day routine, she’s on to something. Nick’s defense of his life isn’t intricate, as he doesn’t offer Naomi the hyper-explanatory justification that one could expect from the hero of, say, Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Nick feels ineffably at peace, to a point, and Golden Exits almost subliminally communicates this feeling to us even as it reveals Nick’s comfort to be rooted on a foundation of doubt.
Golden Exits has an autumnal, lived-in quality that’s somewhat of a departure from the flamboyant hostility of Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth. The film’s cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, informs the images with prismatic softness, emphasizing the poetry of, say, a woman’s hair as it’s caught by the sunlight and framed by a kitchen window on a spring morning. The film is an explosion of earthy colors that communicate a sense of enchanted vagueness and lost-ness, and it doesn’t quite seem to be playing out in real time. This melancholic, nostalgic aesthetic is heightened by Keegan DeWitt’s spare score, and by Robert Greene’s diaphanous editing, which blends arguments, flirtations, and recriminations together, underscoring their similarities and affirming both the constrictions and comforts of repetition—of the sameness from which Nick claims to derive freedom.
Of course, when Nick celebrates his lifestyle he isn’t being straight with either Naomi or himself. Beneath his snug monotony is sadness, a curiosity over what he’s filtered out of his life. And Nick’s buttoned-down passiveness, which is laced with aggression, is magnified by the astute casting of Horovitz. As part of the Beastie Boys, Horovitz once exuded unbridled male energy. But in this film he plays a meek artist type who recruits assistants primarily for the company of attractive women and who’s imprisoned by urban middle-class luxury. This casting implicitly suggests the shackling and disappointment of a generation, recalling Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, in which the once indomitable Adam Sandler played an emasculated sad sack who was also infatuated with a seemingly alien brunette with big, bright eyes.
An aging man’s existential difficulties and sexual hunger aren’t exactly unplumbed territories for American art. But Perry understands that sex is only one element of a midlife crisis, which reflects growing old enough to realize that you have not only a date of expiration, but a date of irrelevancy. As Nick says himself, he’s a kind of grim reaper, rooting through people’s pasts so as to lend their lives an illusion of structure, functioning as the historian as artist. Nick isn’t a fraud, as his sensitivity is authentic and memorably embodied by Horvitz’s tentative gestures. And Nick’s attraction to Naomi doesn’t spark a melodramatic incident, but rather dwarfs him with an everyday sort of desire—a desire, fleeting yet scar-inducing, that Mr. Bernstein described in Citizen Kane when he recalled the girl with the white dress.
Horovitz is complemented by Chloë Sevigny—another symbol of ’90s counterculture, the chicest of NYC chic—as Nick’s wife, Alyssa, a therapist who’s weighed down by her own sadness and unreasonably resented by her husband and sister. And these actors are also complemented by Parker, who informs her tart lines with biting acidity. Horovitz, Sevigny, and Parker’s characters offer varying perspectives on how a young, exciting woman can drive people batty, drudging up insecurities that were barely subtext anyway.
The anxiety that Naomi inspires in the film’s other characters—including a millennial couple, Buddy (Jason Schwartzman) and Jess (Analeigh Tipton), as well as Jess’s sister, Sam (Lily Rabe)—pivots on an insecurity that’s particularly relevant in the age of social media. We fear that our peers are living life better than us, and social media, wedded with the Horatio Alger myth that continues to ridiculously define American culture, has led to lives that are wracked by multiple midlife crises. Sam, for instance, isn’t in a midlife crisis, but a crisis in which she’s anticipating a midlife crisis based on her proximity to the miserable Gwendolyn. In Golden Exits, the married characters look to the single characters with jealousy and sadness and vice versa, and the older characters also regard the younger characters in a similar fashion, forming an Ouroboros of overlapping miseries that are distinct to those who are self-conscious and privileged enough to worry about such matters.
Perry’s characters are shrewd enough to recognize the irrational contours of their lives, which they diagnose and chew over in some of the most inventive, twisty, and richly ironic dialogue in modern American cinema, suggesting the potential delusion of intense self-reflexivity. Perry’s dialogue has a musical sense of elusive straightforwardness, which expresses an interior turmoil that escalates throughout the film. Golden Exits emotionally climaxes when Sam gives a haunting speech to Jess about the need for clean exits that family can never satisfy with its messy inescapability—a need that parallels Nick’s quest to inform his father-in-law’s life with a posthumous sense of cohesion.
Golden Exits sustains a lingering aura of futility that’s counterweighted by the film’s beauty and by the exhilaration of seeing Perry realize his vast ambitions, as he’s made a modern film about relationships and social constrictions that clears the bar set by the work of John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. Perry also ultimately empathizes with Naomi, who’s paradoxically diminished by her status as the narrative’s center of attention. Regarded by her American acquaintances as a barometer of their own personal failures, Naomi is never truly noticed. She’s the gorgeous woman as specter, played by Browning with an ambiguity that carries a heartbreaking suggestion: that Naomi’s unknowable because no one wishes to know her.