By Stephanie Zacharek
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By the time Trust the Manopens this weekend, it will have been nearly a year since it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight. Forget that it's a year old; this thing tastes a good decade past its expiration date, perhaps because it plays like a pilot version of Woody Allen's 1992 film Husbands and Wives that's been watered down for mass consumption. Bart Freundlich (The Myth of Fingerprints, Catch That Kid) writes with a sitcom ear; the actors deliver their lines as though they're waiting for the laugh track to catch its breath. And Freundlich directs with a television eye: He doesn't care where he aims the camera, as long as at least one of his leads is somewhere in the picture.
All that would be forgotten if the filmmaker brought a whiff of originality or a smidgen of heart to the proceedings, but his is a romantic comedy sans romance and bereft of comedy. (The New Yorker may find a few things at which to giggle -- say, the joke about alternate-side parking -- but it's highly likely that Searchlight is aiming for more than the BQE crowd.) To the discussion of relationships and how they go stale and suffer, he adds nothing but smart-ass echoes and soggy plaints -- the wanh-wanhs of the forty-something who isn't getting enough tail off the missus, which is the very stuff of prime-time reruns. And the people who populate his movies are archetypes at best and cutouts at worst: the sarcastic, selfish and vacuous who fill Hollywood movies and do not need alleged indies to mimic their wearying behavior.
David Duchovny and Julianne Moore (she's married to Freundlich, so at least she has an out) are Tom and Rebecca, a married couple on the downside of their vows. He's a former ad man who's switched to being a stay-at-home daddy, a gig of which he's not quite as fond. She's a movie actress stooping to conquer the Lincoln Center stage, and she's lost all sexual interest in Tom, to the point where she flinches if he so much as touches her. How has it gotten this way? No idea. The filmmaker never goes deeper than a scene with their therapist (Garry Shandling, whose presence will remind some of The Larry Sanders Show episode in which Duchovny hits on Shandling) in which he advises them to try it "doggy style."
Precisely why Tom quit to stay home is never really addressed, either. If it was to spend time with the two kids, then why do we rarely see him with the children? And if it was because of financial considerations, well, they didn't exactly ditch the nanny or move out of their palatial Pottery Barn digs. It's nitpicky shit like that that makes Trust the Man so frustrating and unpleasant: If the filmmaker doesn't care enough about these people to explain who they are or why they act the way they do, then why should we invest a second's worth of interest in their petty pursuits? In the end, Freundlich makes Tom a stay-at-home dad just so he can stay home and jerk off to Internet porn and, later, bump into the hottest mother in the history of MILFs (Dagmara Dominczyk) and begin the affair that upends his life -- by which I mean teaches him a few meaningful guilty lessons about how he can't live without Rebecca, blah blah blah.
Rebecca and Tom's problems aren't enough for the movie; they're mirrored by Rebecca's brother Tobey (Billy Crudup), a remote-control slacker locked in a seven-year go-nowhere relationship with Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring children's-book writer who has so little faith in her abilities or instincts that she's charmed by Tobey's worthless ways. Of course, they, too, have sex issues -- and they can't stop talking to each other about them, the men and women pairing off to make glib, high-speed chitchat about how they want it, need it, can't get enough, don't give enough, and on and on till Trust the Man morphs into a turgid art-house episode of Dr. Phil. Gyllenhaal, especially, is given such a thankless role that she actually looks like a bad actress, which is a rare, embarrassing thing.
None of this is intended to discount the issues these people have; theirs is the familiar catalogue of the mundane and nasty trivialities that slowly undo lives and relationships and leave even the most confident and contented lonely in a crowded room. But Freundlich has nothing to say and nowhere to go with this material, except to the most contrived ending this side of a Will & Grace episode. His characters don't mean anything because they don't say anything or do anything that feels rooted in the nitty-gritty of the everyday. They're stock shmucks and little more -- unlikable twerps who don't earn or deserve their happily-ever-afters.
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