It takes some audacity to open your film with an homage to “Sunset Boulevard,” but that doesn’t seem to worry Clark Gregg. A journeyman actor valued by filmmakers like David Mamet, Gregg has had a dynamic few years, making his directorial debut with Chuck Palahniuk adaptation “Choke” and an attention-getting role in “The Avengers.” Bold as all that may be, he has used this clout to front “Trust Me” as both an actor and director, and you wonder if this reliable screen vet isn’t stretching himself a bit thin at this point.
Gregg is Howard Holloway, an agent for child stars that carries on multiple conversations while chit-chatting through his Bluetooth. But he’s not the snazzy super agent we know from several fast-talking industry satires, rather a smaller fish. We first glimpse him running late to an audition, clasping a coffee in one hand, a toothbrush in the other. During later scenes, these signifiers return: he remains oblivious to the toothpaste stain on his natty suit jacket, and a car accident leaves his Bluetooth headset broken and dangling from the side of his face. Given his hyperactive career, it seems like just reminding him of these shortcomings would only slow him down.
Early on, Holloway reveals himself to be gifted enough to navigate treacherous deals with a child that may or may not be an estranged son, spitting out figures to studio go-between Allison Janney in an attempt to boost his percentage share. It’s a nasty bit that slowly reveals just how morally bankrupt he may be, faking sincerity with this little boy in order to schmooze with fellow professionals: it’s not so much about the current deal as much as it is about reputation and a continuing relationship, in this case revolving around the boy’s mother (Molly Shannon), derived from a drunken night of misbehavior. It’s a solid opening, one that keeps revealing Holloway as both incredibly compelling and utterly shameless, able to make deals with business partners who practically resent him immediately after a handshake.
A chance encounter gets him face to face with Lydia (Saxon Sharbino — what a name), a beautiful 14-year-old acting prodigy who gives off strong young-Tatum O’Neal vibes to the down-on-his-luck agent. She floats the idea of being represented by him, though she’s under the thumb of her father Ray (Paul Sparks). Ray’s a drunken Midwest galoot (in movies like this, people from flyover state are almost always idiots for ridicule or condescending worship), and he drives a hard bargain. But Holloway comes from the school of scorched earth negotiation, and soon Ray gives way to a co-partnership in Lydia’s management. Before you can blink (and before director Gregg can edit this to make any logistical sense), Lydia’s got a three-picture deal on her table for the lead role in a vampire young adult trilogy called “The Becoming,” supposedly directed by Ang Lee.
For awhile, “Trust Me” draws blood, with Holloway’s testy combative relationship with grand poobah child representative Aldo (Sam Rockwell) generating the harshest back-and-forths. And there are a few good gags, like an agent attending a school musical version of Franz Kafka‘s “Metamorphosis” because Pierce Brosnan‘s son plays “the fly.” Gregg benefits from a strong ensemble too — he’s wise enough to give fellow Aaron Sorkin-ite Felicity Huffman a barn-burning monologue that casually refers to Ang Lee as a “chinaman.” But the jokes and jabs seem to come from the shaggy dog setup, not the plot advancement of the third act. Anyone can tell a joke, but to weave them in a narrative is a difficult act that speaks to the lack of genuinely good comedies made by studios today.
In its final act, Holloway becomes less of a tragic figure than a lantern-jawed hero against a series of revelations that cast doubt on Lydia’s agenda, and find him fighting the studio to maintain his massive franchise percentage fee. He’s forced to make a key moral decision that is tinged with a devious sense of humor, as he first walks listlessly around a motel parking lot, then goes on a date, ignoring the very real problem he now faces. Suggesting that “doing the right thing” would paralyze a Hollywood child agent is a good gag. Having another character convince him to take action moments later suggests a more conservative viewpoint about the dealmakers behind most movies, not to mention the weak-kneed attempt to get Amanda Peet a more active role in the story. Peet, a forever-underestimated actress, is stuck here playing a generic Love Interest, and the film fails to capitalize on her comic timing and natural vitality.
Gregg so far has made two films with unrepentantly noxious protagonists not governed by an inner conscience. “Choke” benefited from a brilliant Sam Rockwell turn, but seemed to feel the need to diagnose the character’s sex addiction as an endearing trait, compromising the integrity of the fairly confrontational source material. Now in “Trust Me,” we wait for the inevitable redemption for a complete asshole who trades on the skills and appeal of children in order to buy a nicer car and resolve petty differences. Being played by Gregg himself makes the transition more organic than it was for Rockwell in “Choke,” but it still rings false. If “Entourage” has taught us anything, it’s clear that Hollywood hates agents… but, like “Trust Me” proves, they also want you to kind of love them a little as well. [C]