This review is published in partnership with Melbourne International Film Festival’s 2017 Critics Campus program. Golden Exits screened at the festival this year.
A filmmaker known for his spitfire dialogue and intellectual tête-à-têtes, Alex Ross Perry subverts his own formula with Golden Exits, switching his focus to a more subtle mode of melodrama. Perry’s fruitful return to a romanticised celluloid Brooklyn finds tension in the undisclosed turmoils of a group of suburbanites, caught in tangled webs of familial obligation.
Among the players are archivist Nick (Adam Horowitz aka Ad-Rock) and therapist Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), both of whom spend their careers mining the pasts of other people. The two endure an uneasy marriage marred by Nick’s past adultery, a slip-up Alyssa’s sister Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker) won’t let them forget. Married record producers Buddy (Jason Schwartzman) and Jess (Analeigh Tipton) have similar problems, with Jess never quite trusting her husband’s late night alibis. Complicating matters for both couples, young Australian Naomi (Emily Browning) arrives in town, brazenly re-friending childhood pal Buddy and working in close archiving quarters with her new boss Nick.
A largely conventional set-up, Perry’s interest first and foremost is in the white lies these characters tell their family, and the meagre details they withhold from one another. Nick feigns ignorance when Alyssa asks about Naomi’s living arrangements, a couple of scenes after Naomi thanks Nick for arranging accommodation for her. Later, Buddy recounts his long night at home to Jess, despite getting in only moments before her after an evening drinking with Naomi. Golden Exits revels in the subtleties of these domestic relationships and the internalised chaos that ensues — no more so than when we watch a dejected Sevigny give seemingly automated advice to an off-camera, off-mic patient (played by Perry regular Kate Lyn Sheil).
Parker, Browning and Sevigny propel this into deeply affecting territory, breaking out from the conventional bourgeoisie melodrama it might otherwise look like from afar. Parker — cornered, bathed in red light and stared down by Sean Price Williams’ static camera — caps a film’s worth of comical cynicism with a particularly depressing final monologue. Perry’s trusty behind-the-scenes duo of DP Williams 1 and composer Keegan DeWitt do exceptional work all round, injecting scenes that are ostensibly about nothing much with feeling and consequence.
It’s often difficult to accept this insular, white, wealthy, monochrome world as real, but it’s worth remembering that this is, ultimately, a story about entitlement and the self-containment that comes with that. Nick and the rest are ensnared by familial duty. They archive their parent’s lives, continually console their siblings, and become stuck in tedious suburban routines. Even Browning’s Naomi, ostensibly an outsider, is caught in this web, initially meeting up with Buddy out of obligation to her parents.
There’s humour sprinkled throughout Golden Exits, usually at the expense of the men. It’s a precarious balance, sympathy and droll comedy, but Perry nails it, helped by the dependable Schwartzman, who’s markedly less sarcastic than audiences might expect but no less funny. Horowitz also does a fine job as a dislikeable, ageing introvert, leaning on his trolley of archives like a crutch (all the while disillusioning lifelong Beastie Boys fans).
Golden Exits feels like a satisfying evolution of Perry’s style. It still holds on to fragments of the rhythmic to-and-fro that most of his films have, but its wittiness doesn’t come off as overly showy. When characters rant or soliloquise in public spaces, their words are defensive mechanisms guarding deep-seated unhappiness. When they are alone, usually in the form of impromptu sibling therapy sessions, their words are doused in anguish and indecision. Perry’s known for making fun of his characters, but for every unbearably egotistical monologue here, there’s a quietly honest piece of introspection.
That’s also how Golden Exits topples its initial fascination with the male characters. For all that Nick and Buddy lead the charge at first, both are eagerly made fools of, making way for more in-depth character studies of Alyssa, Naomi, Jess and Gwendolyn. Perry readily subverts expectations when it comes to the women in his film. The opening scene, which has Naomi singing daintily on Brooklyn steps, initially looks like it belongs in a Zooey Deschanel rom-com, undercut amusingly by the fact that she’s singing glam rock. If there’s a shortcoming on the character front, Lily Rabe’s Sam — Gwendolyn’s assistant and Jess’ sister — feels as though she’s had several scenes trimmed from the first half, emerging quite arbitrarily in the latter.
Golden Exits deliberately bypasses the heated confrontations that fuel these sort of dialogue-driven ensemble dramas. It’s a testament to the accomplished cast that this works; so much tension and emotion is wrought from their subtle glances and small talk. Late in the film Sevigny and Parker matter-of-factly recount their parents’ broken marriage — separate bedrooms in a great mansion and the quasi-relief that came with their mother’s death. In this moment there’s so much more at play than mere twisted wistfulness, there’s a mutual and deep-seated remorse that neither can articulate.