“People never make films about ordinary people who don’t really do anything,” a young woman complains near the beginning of Alex Ross Perry’s “Golden Exits,” a dense, defiantly prickly film about ordinary people who don’t really do anything. Sure to raise a laugh from audiences who know what they’re in for, it’s both the most self-reflexive and self-congratulatory moment in a film that challenges viewers to connect the subtextual dots between its variously dissatisfied quinoa-class Brooklynites — one man’s “ordinary” is another man’s alien, after all — whose conflicts and yearnings don’t build to a tidy thematic destination. Many will accuse Perry of navel-gazing here, but that’s partly the point: “Golden Exits” means to frustrate, even to abrade, in its coolly articulate portrait of cosseted people who want for nothing and vaguely desire everything. An intriguingly motley ensemble, ranging from the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz to an outstanding Emily Browning, lends this gradually rewarding opinion-divider what little commercial pull it has.
In a film that falls on the chilly side in its view of human behavior, it’s Perry’s textured, jazzy craftsmanship that warms things up. The title, otherwise unexplained, is reflected in the gilded, languorous spring light that brightens multiple scenes in “Golden Exits,” permeating the tactile, fuzzy surface of Sean Price Williams’ lovely 16mm lensing. The initially melodious, lightly melancholy piano runs of Keegan DeWitt’s wonderful score, meanwhile, may put some viewers in mind of vintage Woody Allen. Yet it soon becomes clear that Eric Rohmer — that cinematic conversation artist so beloved of American independents from Allen to Noah Baumbach — is more of a spiritual presence in a film that wears its calm intellectualism without diffident apology. Sober but not without optimism, the tone here falls somewhere on the spectrum between the half-jaunty black comedy of Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” and the brittle intensity of his “Queen of Earth.”
What “Golden Exits” shares with both those films is a blithe commitment to disputing a still-prevalent critical fallacy: that the likability of characters is in itself a narrative virtue. Those who found the title character’s preening misanthropy hard to take in “Listen Up Philip” won’t get much relief in Perry’s latest, but he has written a gaggle of convincingly difficult people, as believable in their vanities as they are in their vulnerabilities. The new film’s pain-in-the-neck-in-chief is Nick (Horovitz, an inspired choice), a middle-aged family archivist who has largely checked out of his diplomatically unhappy marriage to stern psychoanalyst Alyssa (Chloe Sevigny). He’s briefly drawn out of his self-involved fog by the arrival of itinerant young Australian Naomi (Browning), who takes a job as his assistant while visiting New York City — a place with which she seems to have some unspoken history.
Alyssa and her corrosively caustic sister Gwen (a fearsome Mary-Louise Parker) have their suspicions about what Nick might be up to with the pretty protégée in his bleak basement office — where, to compromise matters even further, he’s at work on organizing the estate of the sisters’ late father. His drifting eye gives credence to their concerns, but Naomi’s gaze is elsewhere: namely, on distant family friend Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), an awkward, married sound technician who meets the estranged outsider out of polite obligation and is unprepared for her pursuit. Perry and his expert editor Robert Greene join these various malcontents — plus such attached souls as Gwen’s weary PA Sam (Lily Rabe) and Buddy’s sweet-natured wife Jess (Analeigh Tipton) — in an intricate roundelay of seduction, rejection and disaffection, giving each one a turn to spill their guts, however fleetingly.
No one comes away with our unreserved sympathy in this episodic, increasingly heightened diary of collective discontent — structurally divided only by random dates over a two-month period in springtime, the exactitude of which counters the shapelessness of the lives under scrutiny. A more predictable film might position Naomi as a naive ingenue in this back-biting world of metropolitan kale-eaters, but the more we get to know the young woman — introduced, in the film’s gorgeous opening close-up, singing a fluty, dreamily hopeful rendition of Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” — the more her spines reveal themselves. “That’s not a path I want to go down again,” she says evasively to Nick when he puts the moves on her; even the least worldly looking characters in “Golden Exits” carry their own deep archives of error and disappointment.
In her most rewarding role since the sensual provocation of “Sleeping Beauty” in 2011, Browning gives a wonderfully guarded, layered performance, wearing her new-girl sexuality with the same highly studied casualness that she does her slouchy herringbone work blazer. (Amanda Ford’s superbly chosen, tellingly recycled costumes are an asset to all the actors, with certain chic outfits fraying and palling as much over the film’s timeframe as the characters do.) If Browning’s turn is a triumph of underplaying, none of her co-stars gets to vent quite as spectacularly as an acid-spitting Parker, not least in a scene where she bitterly counsels Naomi to “f—k your way through this city” — adding, in a suddenly affecting kicker, “Then you won’t have to deal with the shame of living in it anymore.” Even the ugliest moment in “Golden Exits,” it turns out, can make a strange, prying lunge for the heart.