Is it possible to completely loathe the premise on which a film is based, while still kind of enjoying watching it? It must be, because that's pretty much where I stand on Bart Freundlich's Trust the Man, starring Freundlich's wife, Julianne Moore, Maggie Gyllenhaal (in her third prominent role this year -- don't miss her in Sherrybaby, which opens next month), and real-life best friends David Duchovny and Billy Crudup (who also pal around with Freundlich and Moore, which left Gyllenhaal the new kid in the cast -- an awkward situation Moore quickly remedied by telling her, "We're all assholes").
The chemistry among the cast is great; the film feels, for the most part, like you're watching a group of old friends going through life crises together. The plot, in a nutshell: Rebecca (Moore) is a famous actress who has just taken on a stage play; her husband, Tom (Duchovny) is an ex-ad exec who recently quit his soulless job to stay home with the couple's two young kids. Rebecca and Tom are having sex issues: Specifically, Tom wants more of it ("Twice a day," Rebecca mouths to the couples' therapist (Garry Shandling) during their once-yearly therapy tuneup) and Rebecca doesn't.
Rebecca's younger brother (and Tom's best friend), Toby (Crudup) has been in a relationship with his girlfriend, Elaine (Gyllenhaal), for seven years, and it's going nowhere fast. It's probably a testament to Crudup's enormous talent as an actor that I disliked the character of Toby so intensely that at times I had to physically restrain myself from yelling at him through the screen. Toby is, as Crudup so adroitly put it at the film's NYC press junket, "an infant" -- one of those irritating men who just cannot and will not grow up. He's solipsitic to such an extreme, and treats Elaine like such chattel, that it was difficult for me to buy that an otherwise intelligent woman like Elaine had been in a relationship with him for seven years.
And yet, what was perhaps more frustrating about their relationship is that I know some intelligent women with everything going for them who get into this kind of relationship, and who just won't leave. It's baffling, in both the film and real life. Gyllenhaal brings so much truth to her role though; she perfectly captures that innocent hope that someday, this idiot of a man is going to magically morph into a decent partner, as well as her mounting frustration as she realizes he's no closer to the altar than he was when they started. The moment when Elaine suddenly realizes with perfect clarity that she's wasted seven years of her life with this man-child is priceless -- the pain in Gyllenhaal's eyes doesn't seem like acting here at all -- and even more priceless is Toby's utter cluelessness as to why his girlfriend is dumping him seemingly -- to him -- out of the blue.
Duchovny's performance is equally strong, although Tom's midlife crisis irritated me almost as much as Toby's idiocy. Caught in an identity crisis after giving up his career to stay home with the kids, Tom responds -- naturally -- by turning to porn and a sexy divorced mom from his kids' school to reassure him of his manliness. Honestly, this is just an insult to all the stay-at-home dads out there. Of course Tom deals with his crisis by cheating on his wife. Naturally. Perhaps Freundlich was trying to stay far away from Mr. Mom territory by focusing Tom's energy on sex instead of on mastering housework and aerobicizing with the overweight suburban SAHMs, but I knew from the early therapy scene where we were heading.
To his credit, Duchovny takes a role that could have been played as a straight cad, and adds layers of depth and conflict to him that make him likable in spite of his cheating ways. Tom isn't cavalier about cheating on his wife, or even about surfing for internet porn. He seeks out help from a sex addicts' group and he tries to puzzle out why on earth he's risking his marriage and family by filling his emptiness with sex. If Freundlich's script kind of gives Tom a free pass on the affair (and Freundlich swore at the junket that the character of Tom -- the writer married to the famous actress -- is not him), well, that's not Duchovny's fault. Moore turns in her usual classy performance as Rebecca, who's taking a break from the screen (as so many stars seem to be doing these days) to take a spin in a Broadway play.
Rebecca's facing her own temptation in the form of Jasper (Justin Bartha), her younger, eager-beaver costar who's clearly also eager to land a famous actress in the sack. But where Tom faces temptation in the form of a sultry mom (Dagmara Dominczyk) and succumbs, Rebecca never really wavers. Perhaps it's because Jasper is annoying, kind of like the little dog to the gruff bulldog Spike in those old cartoons ("What're we doin' today, Spike? Huh? What're we doin' today?!"), or maybe she's just not willing to risk her marriage for sex on the side and Tom is -- or at least, he doesn't stop long enough to think about what he's really doing.
Gyllenhaal's role gets most interesting after she dumps loser Toby. She has a couple of pretty hilarious encounters, one with an intensely bizarre singer (and former flame of Rebecca's). The most interesting of her encounters, though, never comes to anything. Elaine, who is desperately trying to get her first children's book published, has a brief encounter with the lesbian head of a publishing house (Ellen Barkin), who's more interested in Elaine than her book -- thanks, ironically enough, to Toby's addle-brained suggestion that she ditch the "serious" author pic attached to her submissions and replace it with a cleavage shot in a bikini. There was great comic potential there, had it been a recurring theme, but they meet, just once, for lunch, and that's it.
For the most part, the film is solidly scripted, even if I didn't like a lot of what was going on story-wise. The visual design is lovely, the dialogue is sharp and funny, the acting from the four leads couldn't be more solid (lucky Freundlich, being married to Moore and having friends like these to pull into his film), and the chemistry among them is great. And to Freundlich's credit, the movie is really funny in the right places, and mostly poignant when it's supposed to be -- until we get to the final act of the film -- the theater scene.
If you've already seen this film, you probably groaned out loud as soon as you read that, because the grand finale of this otherwise solidly written script is -- trust me on this -- just bad, bad, bad, and a does a total disservice to the actors' performances up to that point. I don't want to spoil the cheese-o-rama effect of the ending for you, but suffice it to say that it's by far the worst moment of an otherwise decent film. Overall, though, while I can't say I liked much of the storyline, and, as aforesaid, I really loathed poor Toby, I have to give credit to the great comedic performances of the cast for carrying the film through its rough spots, even the ending.