“I’m trying to poop, but I can’t.” So announces David (Liam Broggy), young son of Tom (David Duchovny), erstwhile ad copy writer and current house-husband. Dad stands just outside the bathroom door to offer advice. “Sometimes,” he says, “if you just sit there, the fart will work its way out.”
Part obvious and part obscure, the exchange is an apt beginning for Bart Freundlich’s latest melodrama, Trust the Man. This version (after 1997’s The Myth of Fingerprints and 2001’s World Traveler) features sardonic humor along with the familiar dreariness, most often delivered dryly by Duchovny (whose deadpan affect is precisely right here) and Billy Crudup as his brother-in-law Tobey. Both are men in search of purpose, in the insipid sense. They are, as the film’s opening metaphor suggests, seeking some kind of movement, a way to stay relevant in their own lives.
While Tom is manifestly bored with his stay-at-home gig, his famous actor wife Rebecca (Julianne Moore) does her best not to notice, being busy working, that is, out of the house. Her brother Tobey, a sportswriter by trade, is also a restless neurotic by temperament. He sees his refusal to “commit,” by way of marriage, anyway, to his girlfriend of seven-years-and-counting, Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal) as a sign of his independence.
An aspiring children’s book writer, Elaine is also actually fond of children, to the point of wanting to have them. Tobey predictably prefers not to take on that responsibility because, apparently, he’s got this “thing” about death. He’s scared of it, and somehow, kids inspire that fear. (As does Elaine, though he’s reluctant to make that connection.) Tobey’s lack of trust, in other words, is rooted in rather standard notions of what it means to be a man in 21st century urban America.
Tobey is witty, and not incapable of charm. When Elaine is frustrated that he’s obsessed with his parking space to the point of refusing to drive her to an appointment for fear of losing it, he reminds her of why he dotes on his car, because, after all, “The first time I saw you I was in that car.” And now, well, he won’t give her a ride in it. Elaine puts up with this illogic because, well, that’s what girls do in melodrama.
For her part, Rebecca attends couples therapy sessions with Tom, in order to articulate efficiently some basic conflicts in the marriage. Though Dr. Beekman (Garry Shandling) points out that they’d make more “progress” if they came in more than once a year, Tom and Rebecca don’t actually want to change their dynamic. That would be too scary. The “issue” they do voice is pretty much what you’d expect: he wants more sex, she thinks he’s a “sex maniac” because he wants it “twice a day and always from behind.” Though Tom eventually self-diagnoses as a sexaholic, even attending 12-step meetings, the movie intimates that his particular pathology is broadly symptomatic, not only individual. He’s a product of years of typical privilege and presumption, dissatisfied but again, unable to move just yet.
If Tom’s sex addiction is sensational (not to say “trendy”), Tobey’s pathology is more mundane (not to say “Woody Allenesque”). A longtime therapy patient himself, Tobey distrusts his doctor (Bob Balaban). When asking about the doctor’s family history yields no information, Tobey begins to stalk him, literally following him on the sidewalk, imagining if he discovers some secret, something will be different. That he has no notion of what that something would be or what he wants, Tobey is perpetually childish, so acutely that you wonder why Elaine puts up with any of it.
And so: as the men must find themselves, the women wait to be discovered as the means to their salvations. Tom’s adventure takes the form of an affair with a fellow preschool parent, while Tobey thinks he’ll be better off alone, convincing Elaine she needs to tell him to move out. When she does, he feels confirmed in his lack of trust. Told that he’s a “rebel,” Tom takes it as a joke and as a sort of truth, not quite getting that it’s also a cliché, that is, not rebellious at all. Cheating on his wife looks defiant to him, a way to proclaim and pursue his “needs.” At the same time, he puts his toe in the water of the 12-step group, making fun of them even as he comes to see his need for them (his burgeoning trust is demonstrated by the falling into their arms trick: smiles all around). Tom’s self-image is clearly faulty and his reasoning circular: he loves his wife but punishes her because she doesn’t understand him because he won’t talk to her because he doesn’t understand her because she wants to love him. And so forth.
Likewise, Tobey finds mostly juvenile ways to push Elaine away, under the guise of efforts that seem naïve, even sweet, but also fretful and selfish. When, for instance, she says she’d like a videotape of “the Ferlinghetti documentary,” he mis-hears her, then records a Serengheti documentary. When she completes her book manuscript, he advises that she send in a photo of herself that’s not so “goody-goody” as the one she plans to send; instead, he suggests she should “show some cleavage,” in a cheesecakey photo of her in a swimsuit. “Kids,” he asserts, “They love the beach, and this shows that you’re fun.” Whether he’s tone-deaf or actually trying to thwart her just-beginning career is hard to say. No matter: Elaine trusts him.
Trust the Man is primarily focused on women trusting men, because the men find it nearly impossible to trust each other. Tom urges Tobey to stop thinking the “world is against [him],” to “have a little trust.” As much as it might seem “true,” this plot convention is creaky and limited. The possibility that Elaine or Rebecca might find herself or shift her terms of trust is incidental to the guys’ stories (a brief “lesbian” possibility, in the form of Ellen Barkin as a children’s book publisher attracted by the beach photo, is dispatched in two minutes).
Still, Tobey and Tom are unimaginatively arranged to seem the proper objects for Elaine and Rebecca. This much is comically clear when Elaine meets Dante (James Le Gros), a coffee-house musician. As self-absorbed as the other men she knows, he’s also refreshingly upfront about it, not even pretending to be romantic or needy or lost. It helps that Le Gros is so irresistible and low-key energetic, but Dante is also an anomaly in Trust the Man, a man entirely trusting, of himself.