Clark Gregg's Hollywood satire plays for uncomfortable laughs, and doesn't always get them.
There’s certainly humor running through writer-director-star Clark Gregg’s “Trust Me,” the tale of an inept agent for child actors; it’s just that not all of it feels intentional. Mixing comedy, drama, satire and noir, the Marvel actor’s second outing behind the camera plays for the same kind of uncomfortable laughs that his 2008 dramedy “Choke” did, but this one gazes so deeply into Hollywood’s navel that, with the affable Gregg in practically every scene, it ultimately can’t escape the whiff of a vanity project. In limited release day-and-date with VOD on various platforms, the pic figures to play best among fans and friends of the actors. Bizzers will be amused.
The first of a pair of bookend scenes sets up the tonal mish-mash, as a badly injured Howard (Gregg), waxes philosophical about life. Fade out, and we meet the agent as he’s late to his first appointment of the day, for a desperate client who’s auditioning for a role he has no chance of booking, since producers are using him as leverage to get the talent they really want. Howard’s instant retreat from his hardline negotiating stance with a studio rep (Allison Janney) aims for laughs, but also establishes him as the kind of weak character it’s hard to root for.
His next teen client, Lydia (Saxon Sharbino) seeks him out in a parking lot as he’s mopping up the remains of his latest firing. She’s just landed the lead in a franchise film, wants to escape the clutches of her domineering dad, Ray (Paul Sparks), and has identified Howard as her savior.
As the agent tries to establish himself as Lydia’s rep, he must battle a slick, talent-poaching rival (Sam Rockwell, who starred in “Choke”); establish a working relationship with an unsavory studio chief (Felicity Huffman) and find out the deep, dark secret between Lydia and her father.
While a film like “The Player” engaged in a life-and-death struggle for Hollywood’s insecure, paranoid soul to score its sly humor, “Trust Me” makes its hay in the part of the biz that feeds on desperation. The laughs, when they come, do so via situations that are recognizable but awkward. As the movie takes itself more and more seriously in the later reels, it loses its comic edge entirely — so much so that the sight of Lydia dolled up as a hard-edged femme fatale near film’s end plays more like absurdity than satire, with a touch of bathos thrown in.
The cast, littered with well-known names, is generally excellent in service of stereotypical characters. Rockwell is appropriately slimy, Huffman chilling, Janney deceitfully cheerful. Amanda Peet is bubbly as Howard’s amorous, wisecracking neighbor, who engages in a relationship with him that defies logic. Sharbino (TV series “Touch), in the film’s pivotal role, does best in the film’s meta-acting scenes.
While Tim Robbins had a haunted look about him that fed the satire in “The Player,” Gregg imparts the kind of open likability that undercuts such dark designs. The picture’s final twist and concluding image feel like they’ve been set up by two different movies (“Body Heat” and “Michael,” anyone?).
Music plays up the dramatic aspects of the pic, without serving the comedy. Pacing is disregarded in the last reel. There’s also a touch of magical realism — or is that an homage to “Forrest Gump”? — that flits about the proceedings. But “Trust Me” isn’t playing for chocolates.