The unnervingly talented 33-year-old writer-director Alex Ross Perry seems intent on liberating American independent cinema from the tyranny of “likable characters,” one movie at a time. The men and women moving through his brittle, blistering dark comedies stake little claim on our affection, which may partly explain why they so easily command our attention.
“It’s one of the worst tendencies of human nature to assume the best of others,” someone remarks in Perry’s 2015 psychological thriller, “Queen of Earth,” coming as close as anyone to summing up the governing ethos of his work.
Most of the prickly, self-analyzing bourgeois Brooklynites in “Golden Exits,” Perry’s moody and enveloping fifth feature, know better than to assume the best of each other, let alone themselves. But the tone the director sets here is more melancholy than abrasive. Compared with the shivers of self-loathing that animate “Queen of Earth” and “Listen Up Philip” (2014), his brutal comic portrait of an insufferably arrogant New York novelist, this exquisitely textured ensemble portrait is a gentler, more forgiving piece of work, not least because the filmmaker’s jabs — and his sympathies, such as they are — feel more evenly distributed.
Descending on Brooklyn in a warm springtime haze (call it a golden entrance), the movie spends 94 minutes charting a few months in the lives of several men and women occupying a few blocks in the borough’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood. The outsider who loosely ties them all together is Naomi (Australian actress Emily Browning), a twentysomething Melbourne native who, as we can guess from her enchantingly wistful rendition of “New York Groove” in an early scene, has touched down in the city for a brief but meaningful spell.
Specifically, she has been hired as an assistant to Nick (the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz), a middle-aged archivist who’s busy organizing his late father-in-law’s estate. Naomi is young and attractive enough to rouse the suspicions of Nick’s wife, Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), a morose therapist who hasn’t forgotten or forgiven her husband’s earlier dalliances.
That Nick is poring over her father’s documents adds another squirmy layer of self-involvement to the whole arrangement, even as it seems to be the only thing still holding them together. Compounding their misery is the continual presence of Alyssa’s divorced sister, Gwen (a wickedly acerbic Mary-Louise Parker), who makes little secret of her disdain for marriage in general and for Nick in particular.
“He’s weak,” Gwen says of Nick, before going on to (sort of) cushion the blow: “It’s OK, most people are. Especially men.” By way of illustration, the story fans out to introduce Buddy (Jason Schwartzman, “Listen Up Philip”), an old family friend of Naomi’s who renews their long-ago acquaintance, initially as a favor, but soon for different, fairly obvious reasons. Buddy might be quicker to act on his feelings if he weren’t married to Jess (Analeigh Tipton), the film’s quietest and most contented character, who spends a lot of time acting as a sounding board for her unhappy sister, Sam (Lily Rabe).
It would be easy enough to draw parallels between these two husband-wife-sister constellations, or to suggest that Sam, Jess and Buddy will eventually age and curdle into their own toxic triangle à la Gwen, Alyssa and Nick. You can imagine a more conventional treatment of this material in which Naomi, having garnered the attention of both Nick and Buddy, turned into a double homewrecker.
But Perry is after something stealthier here, and he avoids steering his characters toward any of the obvious romantic or farcical complications — least of all Naomi, who, given a wonderfully layered reading by Browning, defies every attempt to paint her as an obscure object of desire, an immediate threat or, as Gwen curiously perceives her, a potential protégée.
Naomi doesn’t have everything (maybe not even anything) figured out, but she’s savvier and more assertive than her relative youth might imply. Eager though she is for new friends and experiences, she is also entirely content with solitude.
In this she seems well ahead of some of the older, more rooted characters like Sam, who spends much of her screen time comparing herself to others and bemoaning her dissatisfaction with her job and singlehood. Rabe, in one of the film’s most vivid turns, shapes Sam’s existential rut into something radiant and piercing. “I don’t want to feel adrift in some nebulous middle ground,” she says, in a monologue that’s typical of Perry’s leisurely, unfashionably literate dialogue, spoken by characters who aren’t afraid of their own eloquence.
The confessional spirit of Eric Rohmer, the late French auteur revered for his wise, talky relationship studies, hovers insistently over the proceedings. And no less than Rohmer, Perry understands that talk can be every bit as revealing as action, if not more so. Whether he’s tracing the contours of an abbreviated marital spat between Alyssa and Nick (played by Horovitz in indelible shades of pathetic and sympathetic), or following Buddy through his own journey of desire and denial, Perry teases out the tension in the in-between moments, in the glaring chasm between the lives his characters are leading and the ones to which they long ago aspired.
Shot on luminous 16-millimeter film by Sean Price Williams, “Golden Exits” fades from one conversation to the next, carried along by a camera that zooms and glides through scenes with intimacy and ease, and also by a plaintively lovely score (composed by Keegan DeWitt) that plays beneath nearly every scene. The music never feels obtrusive; it forges subliminal connections among these lost, lonely people, adding resonance to their words and weight to their silences. It becomes the soul of a movie that gazes deep into its characters’ unhappiness and emerges with something searching, sad — and perilously close to likable.
Rating: R, for language and some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica