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Sundance Film Review: ‘Golden Exits’

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“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 fug 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

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