A romantic comedy that aims to be more cultivated than the norm, Bart Freundlich’s film is notable only for offering us two squabbling couples rather than just one and being considerably more sour and shrill than most examples of the genre. As it turns out, “Trust the Man” is actually harder to endure than most junky Hollywood films of its ilk.
That’s because the four NYC lead characters Freundlich has created are simply so irritating and unpleasant. Two are married couple Rebecca (Julianne Moore) and Tom (David Duchovny). She’s a well-respected film actress rehearsing a play at Lincoln Center, while he’s a stay-at-home dad to their young children. Their closest friends are another couple, consisting of Rebecca’s undisciplined brother Tobey (Billy Crudup), whose occupation seems uncertain, and his long-time girlfriend Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an executive assistant who’s just finished a children’s book she’s about to submit for publication. Rebecca and Elaine commiserate a lot, largely over the actress’ personal and professional insecurities and Elaine’s desire to settle down and have a family, despite Tobey’s refusal to commit as a result of a death-phobia he can’t quite discuss with his increasingly irritated analyst (Bob Balaban). And Tom and Tobey share their problems, too, which will eventually come to include the former’s taking up with the divorced mother of one of his son’s classmates (leading him to join a distinctly oddball support group) and Tobey’s interest in an erstwhile college classmate (Eva Mendes) who’s now married to a hip-hoppish club promoter but still anxious to swing.
Perhaps we could care about these characters if they all weren’t written and played as such annoying jerks. Playing on his hangdog looks and low-key manner, Duchovny makes Tom a twitchy, sex-obsessed guy with a penchant for the unfunny wisecrack (his scenes with the group are particularly unhappy in that respect), while Moore relies entirely too much on her long-faced manner and ability to garner weepy sympathy as Rebecca. Worse yet is Crudup, who’s all too successful at making Tobey such a whining, silly goofball that you treat every one of his potential reappearances with foreboding. Gyllenhaal is the least disagreeable of the bunch, largely because Elaine is the most grounded, likable figure of the quartet. But apparently to make up for that, she’s saddled with the most noxious supporting characters–a rock singer/preacher who becomes a one-night stand (badly played by James Le Gros), a new boyfriend with a thick “comic” accent (Justin Bartha), and a publisher (Ellen Barkin) who comes on more to her than her book as a result of the revealing “author’s photo” Tobey has persuaded her to send along with the manuscript.
Mention of these three unfortunate figures points up the failures in Freundlich’s screenplay, which aims for sophistication but achieves only Big Apple archness. One can discern how far wrong he goes best, perhaps, in the therapy sequences, both Crudup’s with Balaban (who does his usual uptight shtick according to formula) and Duchovny’s with his larger group. (There’s a scene near the beginning when Gary Shadling shows up in a cameo as Rebecca and Tom’s marriage counselor, too, but it’s just a set-up for a cheap sex joke.) But “Trust the Man” waits for the last reel to reach its nadir in an elaborate reconciliation scene for both couples set at the premiere of Rebecca’s play. Presumably the episode was written as a send-up of the sort of extravagant happy-ending so commonplace in romantic comedies, from the thirties to the present. But it’s so badly constructed, clumsily directed and stridently acted–with everyone italicizing everything–that it’s genuinely embarrassing for the actors and painful for the audience (us, that is, rather than the one in Lincoln Center).
It has to be admitted that New York looks good in “Trust the Man.” Tim Orr’s cinematography sets off the locations nicely, and the production design (by Kevin Thompson) and costumes (by Michael Clancy) are fine. But in terms of content this is a grating, unfunny would-be romp that’s like bargain-basement Woody Allen.
All of which might make you wonder why Freundlich keeps finding backing for his movies despite a less-than-stellar track record. Could it be because Julianne Moore is his wife, and agrees to star in his pictures? Nah!