“I feel like people never make films about ordinary people who don’t really do anything,” sighs the lovely young center of Alex Ross Perry’s frustrating “Golden Exits.” Her name is Naomi (Emily Browning, “American Gods”), and she has arrived in Brooklyn from Australia only to find herself fetishized by a group of ordinary people who don’t really do anything.
As it happens, the 25-year-old Naomi fits this description quite well, too. But it’s hard to know if Perry realizes it, since his camera ogles her in much the same way everyone else does.
No one stares more than Naomi’s flaccidly creepy middle-aged boss, Nick (ex-Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, perfectly cast). Nick is an archivist, currently tasked with making sense of his father-in-law’s life. His wife, Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), wants to believe that he hired Naomi for her skills, but Alyssa’s sister Gwen (Mary-Louise Parker) is skeptical. And rightfully so: not only does Nick have a vaguely referenced history of infidelity, but he almost immediately shows up at Naomi’s door drunk, at night, wheedling for some company.
Meanwhile, Naomi’s sights are firmly set on Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), a record producer who married his own young assistant, Jess (Analeigh Tipton). Buddy tries to resist Naomi’s charms, but finds himself making more and more excuses when he comes home late. Jess’s miserably single sister Sam (Lily Rabe) is simultaneously suspicious of Buddy and jealous that Jess gets to be married at all.
As the men either harass or flirt with Naomi, hoping to recapture the freedom of their former selves — or at least the image they’d like to have of their former selves — the women feel suffocated in a different way. They use her presence as an impetus to analyze their own unhappiness, caught as they are in the sludge of both their and their spouses’ mid-life crises.
Perry (“Queen of Earth”) sets his scenes from two marriages to Keegan DeWitt’s elegiac piano score, solemnly watching as people get dressed in their pristinely empty brownstones, or sit glumly at their cramped and messy desks. Every ordinary action they take, every unrealistic and carefully chosen word they say, is treated with great portent. Sean Price Williams (“Good Time”) is equally meticulous in his cinematography; Brooklyn is shot so precisely that it becomes its own player.
But to what end? Bergman, Cassavetes, and Allen excavated this material decades ago, and there are no new insights uncovered amid the interior lives of these husbands and wives.
While the actors do fight to find depth, their characters are consistently sketched in two dimensions. Frank is a self-deluded narcissist. Gwen is sharp-tongued and bitter. Alyssa and Sam slog through their lives in an endless state of passive or aggressive complaint. Schwartzman and Tipton manage to offer tantalizing hints of a deeper pathos, but they aren’t given the tools to reach it.
We can see Browning, too, struggling to create more. As written, though, Naomi is primarily a concept, an unformed young woman who exists to be observed and objectified. She could be an interesting catalyst for the other characters, but none of them actually find any meaningful perspective or motivation as a result of their interactions with her. Just like Frank, the film winds up exploiting her youth and beauty for its own indulgent ends.
Perry is an interesting filmmaker, whose previous work is worth seeking out. In 2014’s “Listen Up Philip,” for example, he brought in a wonderfully sharp Elisabeth Moss to puncture the pretensions of the off-putting titular character (played, to much better effect than he’s used here, by Schwartzman). This disappointing effort, alas, can best be summed up by a psychically weary Alyssa: “Is that all there is?”