As my esteemed colleague recently noted, the subjects of infidelity and the breakdown of relationships are nearly universal. Unless you’re a Catholic priest who’s actually kept his vow of celibacy, you’ve probably been in a relationship that gradually fell apart, and you’ve at least considered a sexual dalliance with someone who wasn’t your spouse. So why is this common element of the human experience not more often explored? Mr. Rowles asked, concluding that audiences, filmmakers, and — most importantly — the studios that control the money simply don’t have the inclination or the guts to deal with such wrenching subject matter. We’d rather see people brought together by fate, overcoming petty obstacles, and loudly proclaiming their love to an audience no smaller than the viewership of the seventh game of the World Series. So what happens when a filmmaker does have the stones to begin asking those questions but pusses out as soon as the film’s tone drops below happy-go-lucky? He makes Trust the Man.
No one who knows Bart Freundlich’s work will be surprised that he’s turned out such a film — one that initially seems like it might offer a thoughtful look at some flawed, genuinely human characters but dissolves into a conclusion that is frustratingly shallow and insipid. Freundlich is a pretentious film-school brat who seems obsessed with making botched retreads of the kinds of thesis pictures that people in film school like to pontificate about. His first feature, the maudlin, unresolved The Myth of Fingerprints, was an overwrought yet oddly underdramatized family psychodrama along the lines of Ordinary People. His second, the maudlin, unresolved World Traveler, was an overwrought yet oddly underdramatized road-movie psychodrama along the lines of Five Easy Pieces. His third film, Catch That Kid, was an aberration — a kiddie heist movie based on a popular children’s film from Denmark — that he must have taken because he needed to make a more commercial film to remain viable in Hollywood. (After Myth’s measly $500,000 box-office take and Traveler’s piddling $100,000, he was lucky to be offered anything.) So, having made his penance to the gods of 20th Century Fox, Freundlich has been able to fulfill his true dream, remaking Hannah and Her Sisters but pasting on the traditional public-declaration-of-love-in-a-ridiculously-inappropriate-setting borrowed from Wedding Crashers and a million other lame romantic comedies.
It’s a real shame, too, since the movie had the potential to be so much more, with a great cast and a setup that, if not remarkably original, is at least reasonably lifelike. Julianne Moore (Freundlich’s real-life wife) plays Rebecca, a successful film actress taking a break from Hollywood to star in a play at Lincoln Center. Rebecca’s casual disinterest in sex has led to a full-out obsession with porn for her husband Tom (David Duchovny, not acting at all like Fox Mulder, surprisingly), a former advertising executive who set aside his career to stay home and care for their two small children. Rebecca’s brother Tobey (Billy Crudup, with a satyr’s greasy goatee) is a self-absorbed manchild, best friend to the equally immature Tom, and in a floundering relationship with earnest, credulous Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an editor’s assistant and aspiring children’s-book author, whose delicate Lillian Gish face alternately crumples or glows in response to Tobey’s constant bullshit rationalizations.
Tobey is a walking thesis statement, a billboard flashing the message that men are afraid to commit to a relationship because accepting adult responsibilities means accepting that we will all grow old and die. (How this relates to Crudup’s real-life dumping of his then-very-pregnant girlfriend, the luminous Mary-Louise Parker, for the much younger Claire Danes, it would be improper for me to speculate.) Tom is the mid-life-crisis draft of Freundlich’s (obvious, unoriginal) thesis — the one in which the man accepts the adult responsibilities but then has the urge to renege as soon as he realizes that life as a 40-year-old husband and father will probably never be as much sexy fun as being a 25-year-old single guy with no dependants. As simple and overly programmed as these roles are, at least the guys in the movie get to represent something; the women are little more than sounding-boards for their male neuroses. Rebecca is a trouper who shows the occasional flash of vulnerability, while Elaine is mostly a simpering ninny, though she gets to be angry once in a while.
Freundlich’s script is limiting, but his cast is capable enough that they add shadings to their roles … for a while. They can only do so much, and the ending he saddles them with is one of those moments that makes you want to apologize to the actors for having witnessed such a thorough humiliation. The shame of it is that the earlier scenes, though not nearly as clever as Freundlich clearly thinks they are, suggest so many different ways that the story could have gone, and the plot is genuinely unpredictable for a while. That the film’s attempts at complexity and genuine human drama should wind up being tossed aside for such a pat, stupid ending is downright infuriating. And that’s why I’m being so harsh on Freundlich, though I actually empathize with the guy: I too wish I were smarter and my ideas more original and paradigm-shatteringly profound. But the way for a filmmaker to achieve that isn’t by parroting Robert Redford, Bob Rafelson, or Woody Allen, and it sure as hell isn’t by slapping on exhausted genre tropes when you can’t think of an ending.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Trust the Man / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | August 25, 2006 | Comments ()