Pivoting from the cerebral intensity of Queen of Earth — an Images, or Fassbinder, -like exteriorization of a woman’s mental breakdown — Alex Ross Perry’s latest is a mini-Magnolia, a threaded “network narrative” (to use a David Bordwell term) about a gaggle of 30 and 40-somethings in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn that might’ve been titled Desire by the Gowanus. Naomi (Emily Browning, all bee-stung lips and delicate hair wisps) is a young Aussie who arrives to assist Nick (Adam Horovitz), an archivist handling the estate of the father of his wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), at the behest of Alyssa’s sister Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker). Naomi also reconnects with a distant acquaintance, Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), who now runs a music studio with his wife Jess (Analeigh Tipton). The Naomi we meet is a pretty blank slate, but her very presence smokes out the other characters’ petty insecurities, stifled longings, and past indiscretions, providing adequate scaffolding (better than the somewhat pointless calendar date intertitles) for Perry’s usual lightly edited reams of dialogue and scenes that ping-pong between four or five rooms in a ten-block radius. The skinny narrative is lent shape and heft by the Perry team’s returning talents, like cinematographer Sean Price Williams (catching Brooklyn in its plain-air spring glory) and composer Keegan DeWitt, whose wistful piano sketches eventually make way for more ominous orchestral notes, underlining the repressed emotions beneath idle chat.
As in The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip (watch for an Easter egg reference to the latter), Perry delights in the little nastinesses and accruing white lies that are a survival necessity, but that can eventuate real damage — and Horovitz, far from his Beastie Boys persona (which itself evolved dramatically over the decades), proves masterful at conveying this kind of passive aggression. Nick exaggerates Naomi’s ineptitude to his jealous wife and overblows Gwendolyn’s mendacity while shit-talking with Naomi. Nick’s gait is shifty, his posture defensive, and he finds the perfect crutch prop in his magnetic reading glasses (apparently Horovitz’s idea), which can clip together to end an inconvenient conversation. Buddy is more casually duplicitous, and his moderated response to Naomi’s temptations come to seem like the height of maturity after a painful scene of a drunken Nick popping in at Naomi’s (complete with threats of work visa revocation) that would make even the editors of Babe.net squirm.
Perry delights in the little nastinesses and accruing white lies that are a survival necessity, but that can eventuate real damage.
Though Perry has discussed his preference for expressing himself through female characters, the women here mostly react to their men’s (or dead father’s) peccadillos (stemware-clutching Gwendolyn is an overbearing scold, justifying Nick’s grudge), though Sevigny does very fine work distractedly reciting stock answers to Alyssa’s therapy patients. As Gwendolyn’s assistant (it’s unclear why she needs one), Lily Rabe sums up her soul-searching with, “Desire, what a novel concept,” a clunky line to go with Schwartzman’s “We’ve caught up and now there’s nowhere else to catch but down.” But except for these and the exaggerated ribbing during Nick’s nightmarish birthday “night out with the fellas,” Perry’s dialogue mostly crackles, especially out of the mouth of Horovitz (“It’s thrilling for my whole life to exist in one small zone”) or Keith Poulson as a generic Brooklyn love interest. The best scene is mostly wordless — Nick’s deafening crunch into a pickle spear before spilling seltzer as Naomi agonizes awkwardly in the office, post-incident. Though the women’s extended outpours don’t all register, there is real feeling in a climactic scene in which Buddy returns to Jess (“Sorry it took me so long to come back”), which echoes Brief Encounter’s capper, and helps end Perry’s sometimes ungainly but more often-than-not sharp talkfest on a grace note.