From its first frame, it's crystal clear what movie Trust Me aims to emulate. Clark Gregg, the film's writer, director and star, is splayed in a stairwell, a bloom of blood spreading across his chest as a voiceover waxes poetic about his demise. Right away, he's drawing comparisons to Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., that iconic and classic L.A. noir that blended pitch black humor with the inside baseball of Hollywood's dark side. It's a very bold move for a burgeoning filmmaker like Gregg, who offers his second directorial effort here. But it's also a terrible one, as Trust Me really can't compete on any level, being insipid and mean-spirited.
After years of winning fans as Marvel's quick-witted and wry Agent Coulson, Clark Gregg has forged his own film, presumably attempting to show us another side to this superb supporting player. In Trust Me, he's written himself the role of Howard Holloway, an agent to child stars. He's a cynic, but his dark view of Hollywood and its infestation of calculating casting directors, roving rival agents, and temperamental stage moms is hard won from his own history as a child actor who never made it to stardom.
After we see Holloway bleeding out, the story flashes back to not so long before, when he was just bleeding clients. Desperate to wrangle a kid actor with actual talent, he chases after a pretty starlet (Saxon Sharbino) who is just 14, but wise beyond her years. They quickly bond, and Holloway soon discovers a dark secret that forces him to choose between professional success and ethical integrity.
On paper, this might seem a potentially compelling narrative. But the characters here are so thinly drawn that it's impossible to get invested in Holloway's journey of potential redemption. Gregg seems to assume audiences will empathize with his wretched agent, whose approach to pursuing clients is like the Hollywood equivalent of an ambulance chaser. Even with Gregg's innate affability, Holloway is an off-putting character. Far from rooting for him, I found myself judging nearly every move he makes, especially when the film takes its dark noir turns.
Aside from its problematic anti-hero, Trust Me never establishes a consistent tone that might help smooth out the rough spots in its journey. It zigs from an attempt at Hollywood satire--using deal lingo likely to puzzle most audience members--to earnest drama to a noir-thick third act, completed with an infuriating flight into fantasy. Watching it, it was hard to know how to define Trust Me, what do you call a comedy that's not funny? Or a noir that's not thrilling? A failure, maybe?
I take no pleasure in reporting how uninteresting and inept Trust Me is because I've liked Clark's onscreen work for so long. It does offer some amusing satirical humor, like a joke where Ang Lee is selected to direct effectively the next Hunger Games-like franchise, complete with flying vampire teens. And Gregg has pulled together a compelling cast that includes Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Molly Shannon, Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell. Yet all of these actors have but a few minutes onscreen, none enough to knock this stinker out of its stupor. It seems directing is not Gregg's strongest skill set, as under his own direction his character feels ill-defined, responding more to the clichéd needs of Trust Me's narrative than an organic arc fostered in the script. But what made me actively hate this movie is its final act.
To avoid spoilers, my hands are tied on getting into specifics. But considering its noir-inspirations, I think I can safely tell you Holloway, who believes himself to be a masterful wheeler and dealer, is shocked to discover he's been played and betrayed. There are two problems in Trust Me's climax. The first is that it's painfully predictable, as Gregg's direction telegraphs its twist at about the 20-minute mark. The second is that this twist itself is repulsive, exhibiting a level of cynicism and victim-blaming misogyny that is insulting and completely infuriating. By the time we end up back on those stairs from the start with Holloway at death's door, I was relieved. If only because it meant this so-called comedy was over.