Nick (Adam Horovitz) would have you believe that his nest of comfort, a den cluttered by archival material and binders of his deceased father-in-law’s correspondences, provides him with all the contentment he needs. His hermetic life of walking to work, entering his tiny office, and getting to archive in solitude, is satisfying enough – he’s uncovered a permanent contract on a feeling of complete and utter fulfillment. Or so that’s what he tells himself, his wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), and his sister-in-law/boss Gwen (Mary-Louise Parker). Whatever ghosts linger in his past, Nick’s present ascetic lifestyle provides him with enough meaning. That’s what makes the opening scene of Alex Ross Perry’s new film, Golden Exits, so captivating: this man who cherishes monotony finds his world turned inside out with the arrival of a new assistant in Naomi (Emily Browning). That NYC groove proves to be a little more rigorous than expected.
I hesitate to call a film about a disaffected heterosexual white man in his forties who falls for a woman in her mid-twenties radical, but Perry has made a career out of recalibrating expectations, where the self-doubt and anxieties of his characters are so fully formed that you see it in their silhouettes. Golden Exits is no different, as Perry deliberately adopts a comfortable, leisure pace, capturing Nick’s limp advances. Whether it’s Nick’s unrequited gaze over Naomi’s shoulder or the awkward silences that dominate their conversations, Nick’s treatment of Naomi is first and foremost as an object of temptation; she’s an adequately un-American, youthful, slender, blank slate of a woman. If Noah Baumbach once suggested that “youth is wasted on the living”, then Nick yearns to vicariously experience that misplaced youth with Naomi.
This is an exceedingly well-cast film, with Perry assembling an entourage of capable performers that provide certain nuances and underlying tension to his script. Horovitz’ casting in particular highlights a brand of toxic masculinity, where the sense that one’s credits and debts over a lifetime of debauchery never completely square. The former Beastie Boy, now playing this meek archivist, gives the character an added dimension that would’ve otherwise been left unexamined. Lest we forget that Ad-Rock co-authored the following:
“Girls, to do the dishes
Girls, to clean up my room
Girls, to do the laundry
Girls, and in the bathroom
Girls, that's all I really want is girls
Two at a time, I want girls”
Elsewhere, there’s Buddy (Jason Schwartzman) and his young wife Jess (Analeigh Tipton) who operate as orbiting characters that more or less serve as a mirror to the potential pitfalls of Nick’s pursuit of Naomi. The thematic mirroring tinges the complexion of where Perry’s narrative courses, as Buddy and Nick operate as seemingly polar characters. Buddy is brash yet uncertain, prone to spells of confusion. Nick, however, is reserved but irrefutable to his principles. Where these two characters end up is certainly not where you’d expect.
Lensed by 2017’s most accomplished cinematographer Sean Price Williams, Golden Exits possesses the kind of sun-hued warmth that made Listen Up Philip such an ironically perverse film. The effect is similar here, as Williams’ imbues the film with a warmth that seems to be perpetually out of grasp for all its characters. And with Perry’s effective reliance on close-ups, the film’s numerous insert shots of NYC’s thriving boroughs highlight just how self-involved and disassociated these characters are with their surroundings. It’s only Naomi, who frequently reminded me of Inherent Vice’s Sortilège, who seems capable of acknowledging a broader sphere of existence beyond what’s directly in front of her. She’s emphatic, at least to start, and draws upon her status as a nomad to try to find something resembling a home. Perry inserts text of the day and month as casual reminders of the passage of time, which accumulate as a series of anxiety-ridden gestures that compress Naomi’s stay as fleeting and perpetually on the brink of disaster.
Perry’s filmography has been filled with flattering gestures of recognition. His films have centered on asshole guys who find their undoing when confronted with their own vanity. I get that. But there’s a sophistication to Golden Exits that makes it harder to isolate. It confronts its characters in harsh, unforgiving ways. It’s bleaker. The film’s happy ending involves Jason Schwartzman’s character confronting some very clinical truths about himself that take him to the brink of oblivion. With Listen Up Philip I took profound satisfaction in finding Elisabeth Moss navigating the mess of her relationship and becoming stronger for it. That immediate sense of satisfaction isn’t here in Golden Exits. These characters are broken and stay broken. What’s defective in them remains a permanent feature. Their fates are sealed. This sun-soaked, springtime exercise may be ARP’s most despairing film to date, but it conceals nothing – it gets to the truth of things in a way his previous films haven’t before.