2 stars (out of four)
"Trust the Man" could easily carry the following subtitle: "Men Who Behave Like Petulant, Spoiled Children and the Women Who Decide It's Easier to Love Them As-Is Than To Try to Turn Them Into Grownups."
In fact, that could pretty much serve as a wrap-up for writer and director Bart Freundlich's latest venture, a movie that struggles valiantly, and sometimes amusingly, to engage The Big Issues but ends up feeling inconsequential, almost weightless.
Rebecca (played by Julianne Moore, Freundlich's real-life wife) and Tom (David Duchovny) are an outwardly contented couple with two adorable but largely silent children and a standing annual appointment with their marriage counselor (Garry Shandling, clearly enjoying himself). Tom stays home, mostly happily, with the kids, while Rebecca, a well-known actress, appears in movies and plays. The parallels between the movie's central couple and Freundlich and Moore are inescapable--which may have made Tom's foray into adultery a bit of a delicate subject on-set. Another real-life intrusion: Tom is a sex addict, a condition the tabloids have long enjoyed attributing to Duchovny, despite the actor's denials.
On the other side of town, Rebecca's brother Tobey (Billy Crudup) is trying to escape any accountability to his longtime girlfriend Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal). He won't drive her to work if "Sports Center" is on, he won't marry her, he won't give her babies, etc. Gyllenhaal, who usually brings a delightful quirkiness to her characters, is stuck in the worst kind of stereotypical role, reduced to a baby-crazed harridan who begins to judge men only by their willingness to impregnate her. Crudup plays Tobey with a wild-eyed nervous energy, espousing a litany of Gen-X post-millennial anxieties--a shtick that makes him entertaining, but not particularly likable.
Ellen Barkin makes a brief (and almost immediately forgotten) appearance as a libidinous publisher who may or may not want to publish Elaine's children's book. Meanwhile, Eva Mendes appears out of Tobey's past as a recently married love interest.
Freundlich also wrote and directed the dreamy 1997 indie favorite "The Myth of Fingerprints." Based on his short history, he doesn't lack ambition, especially when it comes to dissecting interpersonal relationships. And he's not short on vision; in fact, he seems to have at least two completely different visions for this movie, and he just can't choose between them. "Trust the Man" begins as a light-hearted love letter to New York City and the lovably quirky, neurotic couples who inhabit it, and then, as those couples unravel in the face of adultery and lies, becomes something akin to, but without the resonance of, Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives." (Freundlich cites Allen as an influence, but lacks the latter's adept touch and grace when it comes to maneuvering bitter, culturally loaded banter.) What results is vaguely schizophrenic; just as we're settling into the new, grim mood, there's a whiplash-inducing return to the snappy, happy repartee that characterized the movie's opening scenes. Problem is, it feels forced, as if we (and the characters) are supposed to forget the film's darker mid-section and all the lessons so laboriously learned.
To wit: It seems that fairy-tale relationships, marriages and careers exist only on the surface, and the deeper you dig, the more window dressing falls away, exposing the sad fact that everyone else is just as miserable as you are. It's a nice life lesson, but we know it by heart, thanks to hundreds of other, better films. Freundlich, who clearly has a keen eye and ear for human foibles and the ability to employ a nice, light touch, needs to identify and exploit a different take on the same old story. When he does, I'll be first in line for tickets.
'Trust the Man'
Directed by Bart Freundlich; screenplay by Freundlich; photographed by Tim Orr; edited by John Gilroy; music by Clint Mansell; production design by Kevin Thompson; produced by Freundlich, Tim Perell and Sidney Kimmel. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday at AMC River East, Evanston Century Cinearts, AMC Loews Pipers Alley and AMC Loews Esquire. Running time: 1:43. MPAA rating: R (for language and sexual content).
Rebecca - Julianne Moore
Tom - David Duchovny
Elaine - Maggie Gyllenhaal
Tobey - Billy CrudupCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times