Clark Gregg’s 2008 Choke may be the lesser known of the cinematic world’s big screen Chuck Palahniuk adaptations (it is, after all, hard to compete with names like Fincher, Pitt, and Norton), but the multi-hyphenate’s directorial debut adeptly translated the author’s trademark black humor to the screen without a hitch. For his second feature, Gregg again goes in for funny stuff with a truly dark edge and, for at least its first half, Trust Me is more brutally and bruisingly amusing than just about any other current comedy around. But Gregg’s stellar first half ends with one hell of an abrupt, tone-changing twist, and he’s never able to fully reconcile his dark humor with true darkness.
Trust Me takes its audience inside the twisted world of dealmaking amongst Hollywood elite – specifically, the twisted world of dealmaking amongst Hollywood elite trying to capitalize on the talent and ability of would-be child stars. Gregg is still interested in trafficking in regular guys with extreme problems – while his Choke centered on Sam Rockwell’s otherwise-average-beyond-that-crushing-sex-addiction Victor, Trust Me focuses on Gregg’s Howard, a sad sack Hollywood agent trying to find the next big kid thing. It’s not easy and it’s not fun and Howard’s particular career path seems like the most weirdly soul-crushing career path imaginable. But Gregg’s Howard doesn’t know any better and he doesn’t know anything else – he’s been in the game since he was just six years old, back when he was a child actor himself, and it’s the only thing he has even the slimmest of acumen for.
Howard’s work as a Hollywood agent isn’t going so well, thanks to his inability to advance his kids to the next level and a competing agent (Rockwell, apparently putting a spin on his character from The Sitter, of all things) nipping at his heels whenever he gets close. But Howard is also awkward, overworked, desperate, socially inept, and unfailingly kind – we want him to succeed, but we just don’t know if it’s possible. Enter Lydia (a wonderful Saxon Sharbino), a newbie teen actress with actual chops who, for some reason, thinks that Howard is the guy to represent her in a massive deal for a new Twilight-ish franchise that’s set to be helmed by no less than, as the inexperienced Lydia calls him, “Mr. Anglee.” Suddenly repping the hottest soon-to-be-star in fickle Hollywood, Howard’s entire life begins to turn around in a matter of hours. Hell, even his hot neighbor (a very funny Amanda Peet) is taking to him, and it looks like nothing could possibly stop Howard from climbing to the top of the heap.
While the first half of Trust Me is a well-balanced mix of black humor, tense business dealings, and character development, Gregg jettisons laughs that come from a place of pain and fear for actual pain and fear. A major plot movement in the middle of Trust Me changes absolutely every element of the film, and while Gregg’s bold choice is to be admired, the film never recovers from the change, ultimately replacing sharp insights with depressing platitudes. Gregg tidily wraps everything up with a hefty dose of exposition, a series of callbacks to an earlier script reading, and a bit of magical realism, but the result isn’t nearly as funny or hopeful as Gregg seems to be going for (or as funny or hopeful as the first half of his uneven film).
The Upside: Solid performances from a mixed bag of actors, particularly from Gregg, Peet, Rockwell, and Sharbino; a sharply funny first half; a gutsy series of twists that, while not always successful, are still worth admiration.
The Downside: Those twists? The result is an uneven film that, after a strong first half, crumbles into a weird mish-mash of genres and tones that leave its audience with cinematic whiplash.
On the Side: When presenting the film to its second Tribeca audience, Gregg commented that they had only finished the feature ten days before, which hopefully accounts for why those anemic CGI butterflies look like they’d benefit from a touch-up.