Writer/director Bart Freundlich, who is best known for the late-'90s indie family drama The Myth of Fingerprints, is the would-be auteur behind Trust the Man, a seemingly semi-autobiographical film starring his wife, Julianne Moore, and set in the couple's upscale West Village neighborhood.
The film follows the romantic and sexual complications of two interlocking Manhattan couples. Rebecca (Moore), a moderately famous film actress working on a stage play, is married, semi-happily, to former ad man Tom (David Duchovny), who has quit his job to be a stay-at-home dad. Rebecca's younger brother, sportswriter and grunge-era refugee Tobey (Billy Crudup), is in a long-term relationship with Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a publishing assistant and aspiring children's book author. Siblings Rebecca and Tobey have also developed close friendships with each other's mate.
Freundlich reveals the couples' complications with a low-key deftness. Rebecca has grown uninterested in having sex with Tom, who wants it twice a day and begins to think he might be a sex addict. (Surely, when you're buying porn at a corner newsstand with your infant daughter strapped to your back, all is not well.) Meanwhile, Elaine is growing impatient with a seven-year relationship that doesn't seem to be going anywhere and a significant other stuck in arrested adolescence.
Though far slighter than The Last Kiss (see review here), Trust the Man is refreshing at times for much the same reason -- because it's become so rare to see movies about recognizable human beings in recognizable places. The film's strength is in its acting.
Duchovny is modestly appealing in a way that suggests he's been underused in what has been a very erratic movie career. But, unsurprisingly, it's Gyllenhaal who truly shines. Since busting out with a breathtaking performance in Secretary a few years ago, the young actress has become something of a female Morgan Freeman -- consistently better than the movies she's in. She owned the otherwise shabby indie Happy Endings last year and gave the most believable, most affecting performance in World Trade Center. Here, she's magical again. There's an extraordinary moment in one bar scene, where Elaine's talking up her relationship with Tobey and he comes back from the bathroom and makes a crude comment. In that small moment where the ideal and the reality clash, the look of brief devastation on Gyllenhaal's face is a heartbreaker.
Unfortunately, the flaws outweigh the strengths with Trust the Man (starting with that terrible title). There's an underlying self-satisfaction that makes the movie feel like a less witty version of Woody Allen's class-bound New York movies. And, Gyllenhaal's Elaine aside, Freundlich doesn't make the audience care enough about these rather self-absorbed characters for you to follow him when he tries to sweep the naturalistic movie up in a contrived romantic finale.