Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Early in Golden Exits, Naomi (Emily Browning), the new assistant to archivist Nick (Adam Horovitz), complains to her boss that no one makes “films about ordinary people who don’t really do anything.” While the individuals in Golden Exits don’t quite reach the threshold of doing nothing, their lives do remain pointedly ordinary. Things move in a straightforward, linear fashion but events lack the traditional rise, peak, and fall of dramatic narratives. It’s a film about nothing in particular, except perhaps the vague sense of ennui specific to white, upper-middle class Americans.
Naomi arrives in New York in the midst of this general dissatisfaction to spend the summer working for Nick, cataloging the voluminous papers left behind by his father-in-law. From the moment of her arrival, his wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny) sulks with ill-disguised resentment. Nick has a penchant for young, attractive assistants that endangered his marriage several years prior; while outwardly the couple acts as though all is well, Alyssa’s sullen interrogations about her husband’s work days make it clear that trust has yet to return in full. Her older sister Gwen (Mary-Louise Parker), as executor of their father’s estate, is the one who commissioned Nick. She takes a meddlesome interest in Naomi’s presence that doesn’t quite rise to the level of maliciousness, but is several shades darker than benign.
Also orbiting around the Australian newcomer are Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), a childhood friend, and his wife Jess (Analeigh Tipton), whose sister is also Gwen’s personal assistant. It’s the organic and messy interconnectedness that seems to crop up in normal life; yet, where Hollywood would engineer a way for all the major players to piece together their tangled relations in a moment of eureka, here they never do. Generalized conversations and a penchant for dispensing with the names of strangers means that Buddy never realizes the hot young employee Nick gets teased about is the same girl his mother made him meet for old times’ sake. Neither does Gwen’s assistant connect the mysterious new arrival mentioned by her employer to the much-younger girl her brother-in-law sneaks off to see. Naomi exists as the invisible center to a quiet storm that no one ever pins down resolutely. Whether she plays the role consciously or obliviously is left up to the viewer.
Philosophizing conversations punctuate these non-events. Oftentimes when two people talk to one another it comes across as an exchange of monologues, rather than a genuine give and take. It’s an arrangement better suited to the stage than film, lacking in the dynamism of a live performance. Everyone is also uncannily articulate with their feelings and thoughts, lending the film a sensation of hyper-realism even as it purports to capture “ordinary” life. Excellent performances by the ensemble salvage some, but not all, of these stilted scenes.
Reality could sometimes use a little polish; if it didn’t, would we even need literature and film? But if you’re of the same mind as Naomi, lamenting the lack of films about “ordinary people who don’t really do anything”, then Golden Exits will only partly ease your woes.