I enjoyed writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits well enough at first. Yet as my chronological distance from the project increases, so too do my annoyances with its gender power dynamics.
The film follows six very specific Brooklynites whose lives are vaguely intertwined and then thrown into further disarray when a young, beautiful Australian disrupts their New York groove. It opens with Naomi (Emily Browning, “Sleeping Beauty”) singing an a capella version of Hello’s (and later Ace Frehley’s) hit song. Naomi is visiting New York to help Nick (Adam Horovitz of Beastie Boys’ fame) in archiving his father-in-law’s “materials.” Nick is married to Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny, “Antibirth”), though answers to her sister, Gwen (Mary-Louise Parker, “RED 2”). He, in turn, is acquaintances with music producer, Buddy (Jason Schwartzman, “Moonrise Kingdom”), who is married to Jess (Analeigh Tipton, “Mississippi Grind”). And her sister, Sam (Lily Rabe, “Pawn Sacrifice”), is Gwen’s assistant. If this sounds like a stacked cast and a complicated backstory, it’s both. The connections unfurl more organically onscreen, but the ways in which these characters relate and relate to each other occasionally feel forced.
Golden Exits is structured with an archivist’s meticulous precision as indiscreet characters pair off in discrete interconnected chapters that are chronologically dated and organized like the materials Nick is currently archiving. This tight structure is further accentuated in Nick’s work slash life balance, or rather imbalance. His home and office occupy the same several block radius. Adrift in routine, he handcarts his own materials in a banker’s box from home to office to local bar, and home again. The confined metaphorical spaces of his life and physical spaces of his actual office reflect his claustrophobic ennui. His current project also collapses the distance between his work and home lives. The responsibility of capturing a man’s life based solely on the materials left behind serves to crystallize the fact of his own mortality. Nick cannot escape this fact, just as he cannot escape the unrealistic demands of Gwen’s strictly enforced timeline.
In fact, confronted with Naomi’s vibrant youthfulness, all six main characters (parallel threesomes consisting of husband, wife, sister) seem to be in the throes of existential crises. By contrast to Nick and Alyssa’s self-containment, Gwen and Sam are not bound by committed relationships, but they still feel held back in a different way and thus unable to move forward. Naomi mentions feeling like “people never make films about ordinary people who don’t really do anything.” Obviously, Perry is winking at his audience as if to say this is exactly what’s in store for the hour and a half. In his film, with characters far from a diverse representation of ordinary people, the key distinction is that they don’t really do anything. And their inactions speak louder than words.
Meticulously shot on 16mm film by Sean Price Williams, Golden Exits is both meandering and tightly structured, seemingly echoing the mundanity and monotony of everyday life. Establishing shots of New York exteriors are captured in the forgiving golden glow of magic hour. The NYC still life moving pictures are populated with people bustling about the city presumably doing things. Late afternoon, as a dark metaphor for the afternoon of life (according to Jung’s view, the second half of life is marked for some by depression and an absence of meaning), casts a shadow over these relatively young lives. In addition to setting a tone and mood, Perry effectively captures that phenomenon where people achieve an easy intimacy with complete strangers and yet create unbridgeable fissures amongst family. Then he astutely undermines that presumed intimacy and reframes it as projection.
When thinking about the film in a new light — one far less forgiving than sunset’s orange glow — there are real problems with the power dynamics and overall way men treat and speak about women. Nick is one of those progressives who believes himself to be an ally of women, but actually harms the feminist cause. He thinks offering that women are more suited to the meticulous work of archiving is a compliment. It’s lost on him that all his assistants (past and present) happen to be young attractive women, despite clear discomfort to his wife and the suggestion that it’s been a problem before. He insults his crude friend behind his back, but then does nothing to defend Naomi when said crude friend overtly objectifies her during a night out with the guys. He believes himself to be better than these locker room talking misogynists, and then shows up drunk at Naomi’s door, coming onto her. When rebuffed, he says he could fire her. She says she would lose her visa and have to go home. So he promptly unfires her, allowing her the privilege of keeping her job and her right to stay in the country. Meanwhile, Jason Schwartzman’s Buddy (no friend to women) finds himself also entangled with Naomi, whom he met briefly when she visited the states ten years prior. Buddy may find his radius even more constricting than Nick’s for he ended up marrying the woman hired as his assistant and they still work together. Sam and Gwen are established as the unmarried sad sack spinsters, but neither of their sisters appear to have a marriage worth envying.
The lively, buoyant score, the establishing New York exteriors, the sexual harassment all call to mind the New York-based films of Woody Allen, a man whose art has creepily at best (and criminally at worst) imitated his life (or vice versa?) and is perhaps not the best example for a young up-and-coming filmmaker to emulate. During Golden Exits, I couldn’t shake this line from “Annie Hall”: “There’s an old joke — two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life — full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”
I’m not sure if Alex Ross Perry is made uncomfortable by such comparisons to Allen or his proto-stand-in Nick, but perhaps he should be. I’m worried he thinks writing female characters that pass the Bechdel test (if barely) makes him immune to these types of conversations surrounding gender and power dynamics. Naomi and Alyssa and Gwen and Sam and Jess don’t shy away from unsavory topics, such as fidelity and mortality, but their conversations are decidedly uninterested in the ways the actions of men have dictated the trajectories of their lives. That said, I still think Perry is an interesting independent filmmaking voice and I’ll be waiting for the next entry in his archive.