Written and Directed by Clark Gregg
From the first shot of Trust Me, Clark Gregg makes it obvious that his satirical picture owes a huge debt to Sunset Boulevard. Both are film noirs set in Hollywood that concern themselves with female actors clawing desperately at fame, but each is told from an opposite end of the spectrum. Billy Wilder’s classic memorably depicts an aging has-been desperate to reclaim her former glory, and Trust Me follows an up-and-coming starlet willing to go to any lengths to obtain celebrity. And the allusions just pile on after that.
Of course, neither of these films centers on the starlet. They are about the loveable losers cajoled into assisting their respective benefactors chase their lofty dreams. Clark Gregg plays the loser in Trust Me. His character, Howard, is a former child actor and current agent to child actors, who is accustomed to losing clients to bigger, sleazier agents, like one portrayed by a very funny Sam Rockwell. Howard lives in a rundown apartment, drives a beat-up car, works from a garage, and resorts to patching his Bluetooth headset together with duct tape, all evidence of his slow but steady downward spiral. Yet he refuses to skip town until he gets the big payday he must think he’s due. However, his lack of success is no result of ineptitude. Once he finds the right rising star to hitch his wagon to, in this case 13-year-old Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), Howard proves that he is truly a skilled negotiator.
A fusion between film noir and satire probably sounds peculiar, but both genres take different approaches to achieve the same goal, exposing the flaws and corruption inherent in powerful, highly regarded institutions. Hollywood is a ripe playground for exposés of this kind, and Trust Me appears to understand this better than other movies that tend to limit the scope of their storytelling by inflexibly adhering to a singular mood dictated by that genre. The satirical implications of Gregg’s narrative start with its keenly worded title. “Trust Me” might be Howard’s and every other talent agent’s favorite mantra, but it’s a difficult philosophy to adopt for anyone attempting to navigate the murky business of getting ahead in a town where every other interaction means brokering some kind of deal. It’s also the worst advice anyone could take if they hope to survive the duplicitous goings-on of a noir tale.
Putting the focus on adolescent actors also accentuates and revamps familiar themes about the loss of innocence. The concept of metamorphosis forms a train of thought that runs throughout the movie, manifesting in a handful of entomological motifs. Howard is preoccupied with becoming something better, rising above his station as if from a cocoon, but there is also a much subtler inference to be made about what’s becoming of these immature performers still developing their moral understanding. How will the make-or-break environment of the entertainment industry transform them?
Clark Gregg’s entry into the pantheon of Hollywood-centric film noirs contains a lot of industry jargon that will likely wash over nonprofessionals but is handled in such a precise way that it makes Tinsel Town appear like the unfathomable country that it is without completely alienating the uninitiated. And when not discussing scales and bumps, the characters lob such razor sharp barbs at each other, they exalt the idea of verbal brutality to previously unexplored altitudes. Not only is the dialogue loaded with wit and deadly intent, but Gregg lined up a roster of masterful talent to deliver it. Allison Janney’s turn as an acerbic casting agent here exemplifies her impeccably attuned sense of timing. William H. Macy, Molly Shannon, Amanda Peet, Paul Sparks, and Felicity Huffman complete a repertoire of standouts and bolster the already finely written material.
Admittedly, there is a disjointed quality to the film’s structure that some might interpret as jarring. The satire portion doesn’t so much mesh with the noir parts as much as they just abut one another, making the last act of the film feel like a completely different experience. Nevertheless, the thesis remains consistent and lends the story a necessary cohesion. Anyone even marginally aware of the noir formula will expect the final twist in the end, but its punch doesn’t suffer from the predictability. Ultimately, Howard has to pay a price for having a soul in a soulless society, as is nearly always the case whether you’re talking film noir or satire.