It is hard not to love Clark Gregg. A diligent character actor for many years on the stage and screen, he finally broke through in 2008 both in front of and behind the camera, with his initial appearance as Agent Phil Coulson in Iron Man and his directorial debut Choke, based on an unnerving Chuck Palahniuk novel. Choke proved to be a tough nut for Gregg to crack, with its sardonic, absurdly funny tone. Unfortunately, as reliable as the actor is as a performer, he still has some work to do in finding the right balance of humour and pain. His newest effort, Trust Me, is a comedy filled with so much misery and self-loathing, that to label it as a comedy is not just inaccurate, but untrustworthy.
In Trust Me, Craig plays Howard Holloway, a Hollywood agent of child and teenage actors who was once a young star himself. However, as he nears his mid-life crisis, Howard is a head case, both alone in love and inept at his job. A rival agent, Aldo Shocklee (Sam Rockwell, as sleazily charming as usual), keeps snatching up Howard’s clients when the ex-child star fails to land them work. Industry execs and casting agents, such as a studio hound played by Allison Janney, hate dealing with him, as Howard tries to siphon off percentage points from the young stars.
He often makes a rude comment or gesture to one of his clients, their parents or the industry people he has to negotiate with, and then has to try (and often fails) to apologize for his salty mouth. (In an early scene, he unleashes a tirade of profanity in front of a school entrance, shocking the parents looking on.) Howard’s last hope to regain credibility on the lot lies in the hands of Lydia (Saxon Sharbino). She is a once-struggling teen actor now turning heads after some strong auditions for an impending fantasy franchise for director Ang Lee. Howard wants Lydia as a client and hopes to help her land the part.
Much of Trust Me relies on the chemistry between Sharbino’s Lydia and Gregg’s Howard, both playing child actors with a rather stunted view of human relationships. Howard moves between playing a rock that his kid clients can speak to for advice and a mis-managed businessman who can go on a vicious tirade and wreck his career even further. Gregg is comfortable in his character’s skin, caught between his own moral judgment and his conniving nature as he tries to lay a stake in the cutthroat animal that is Hollywood.
Less effective is Sharbino, taking a role that would have been perfect for a pre-Kick Ass Chloë Grace Moretz. The young actor is tasked to portray an ambitious kid, with a snide tone and engaging personality, as well as one who has veritable acting chops. Unfortunately, Sharbino is flat, an actor struggling to play someone struggling to be an actor. She is unable to embody the passion or emotion needed for a desperate actor on the brink. At several points in the film, Lydia seems like a character whose only purpose is to suit and serve Howard. “I hope this is a pretty bad day for you,” she tells him, and keeps commenting on his attitude as their alliance firms up. Her dialogue is articulate and artificial to the point that it is unconvincing.
Gregg’s script works mostly for its unwaveringly cynical outlook at showbiz politics. In its best scenes, Howard uses some gutsy moves, bluffing with studio heads and disagreeing to their terms and hoping they will come to a higher offer that will satisfy him and his client. As an actor who hopped around Hollywood in bit parts for many years, it is clear that Gregg, who also wrote the script, has gleaned a lot about the politics and the panache of the casting process. These moments are smart, but they also emphasize how the only great role in Trust Me is the one that Gregg wrote for him.
The rest of the ensemble includes three actors known for their roles as powerful women on Aaron Sorkin dramas – Sports Night’s Felicity Huffman, The West Wing’s Allison Janney and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s Amanda Peet. Gregg is no Sorkin, limiting the former two actors in small roles as industry types who butt heads with Howard and doing very little with Peet, who plays the inconsequential love interest, Marcy. She lives in the same run-down, kitschy apartment complex as Howard and although the actors have chemistry, the relationship fails to ignite into something worthwhile. A better addition to the cast is Boardwalk Empire’s Paul Sparks, who gives a shady edge to Ray, Lydia’s father. Although the character is a flat Mid-western stereotype, with a drawl and deadbeat demeanor, Sparks almost has the charisma to outshine the tired role.
For its first two thirds, Trust Me is an offbeat comedy with stinging jokes that do not quite hit their marks. We pity these characters too much to laugh at or with them, and so Gregg’s film strains to absorb us in Howard and Lydia’s mission to nail her audition and get the A-list role. However, as sour as the film begins, it swerves sharply in its last half-hour to bring in drugs, sex, violence and abuse, giving a contemptible film an even filthier edge. Although Gregg’s defiance of a Hollywood ending is daring, the dark subject matter is handled clumsily. The scene that introduces Howard’s hunch that Lydia is a victim of abuse is vague to the point that we do not understand why he is reacting so strongly towards until he explains it at a later moment. Gregg even tries to employ fantasy images within this dreary reality, touches that are such non-sequiturs, that they feel almost avant-garde.
Trust Me is filled with tired characters and looks appropriately low-rent. This is a glimpse of Los Angeles filled with more smog than sunshine, an aesthetic that helps the movie’s cynical tone, as it exposes a polluted industry. Regardless, Gregg likes to shoots in close-ups that probably look more pleasing on a small television than a movie screen. His decision to shoot long takes in medium close-ups just crams too much into the frame. Gregg is so good at playing the man in control that it is frustrating to see him show such little command for creating compelling characters or filming comedy or drama in an effective way. Trust Me is a smarmy dark comedy that is full of sour grapes, from a writer/director who is never quite able to find the right tone between self-loathing and self-deprecating.
Trust me, you can skip Clark Gregg’s second feature, as it's nothing but a muddled showbiz satire that never finds its tone or momentum.