Say what you will: there is nothing I love more than a perfectly executed, carefully handmade, polished artisanal fart joke. There’s real skill in that kind of humor, so it’s sad to see when gifted urinal cake comedians like Clark Gregg in Trust Me feel the need to strap on tragedy like an overcompensating dildo. The story of a down-and-out talent agent and his abused client, Trust Me combines comedy and tragedy to make one Quasimodo of a baby. Watching the film’s first half, you want to applaud director/writer/actor Clark Gregg for creating a movie that’s legitimately funny. But Gregg tries to make the film something it’s not, and the story quickly becomes paternalistic and sentimental; the tragedy, tacked on with hammer, nails, and hope. Too bad. What humor the movie has falls victim to slam poetry politics, immersed in Greek tragedy emotions and melodramatic bird metaphors. It’s all well-meaning, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a film that advertises itself as a hilarious, goodhearted romp about – whomp whomp! – sex abuse.
Trust Me opens in a Los Angeles apartment complex, where Howard (Gregg) is chasing down his hot single mom neighbor Marcy (Amanda Peet) to see if she’s received the flowers he’s sent her. Marcy, like other single mom victims in the rom-com-rescue-fantasy genre, is initially resistant to Howard’s advances (He’s also a straight man with a single earring, so I can’t imagine that helps). But Howard is persistent with Marcy in a way that is less creepy than it is charming. In a year of Peeta Mellarks and Walter Mittys, I honestly found it refreshing to discover a male protagonist who has at least a half-quarter inch of an origami spine. Male heroes are often characterized as either patriarchal lunatics (Noah) or roadkill scraps (Mitty), so it’s nice to see a man with nuance and an accoutrement.
But as much as Howard wants to rescue, he first needs to be – here we go, plot twist – rescued himself. Howard, we learn, is a talent agent who hasn’t had a success story in years. He’s charismatic and slick, but his paternal sense of ethics makes him unpopular in a world dominated by evil producers and cold-hearted execs (all of whom are women and gay men). After losing his last client, Howard goes to man-cry in his car, only to be “discovered” by Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), a thirteen-year-old actress, in the parking lot. Lydia is stunning and sarcastic and HI ONLY THIRTEEN, so it’s especially creepy when the shot moves out of focus and the two share a Lolita-esque set of stares. Still, their connection feels authentic, and Lydia reveals to Howard that’s she’s a small-town girl in need of a big-city agent. Sometimes a loser, but always the savior, Howard gladly takes on her case.
Father-daughter stories like Howard and Lydia are so compelling for one simple reason: they’re one of the few cross-gender relationships we have in our culture that don’t include 69. While sexual tension is always underneath the surface, viewers are desperate to see narratives that feature less penetration, more putt-putt. Howard and Lydia’s particular bond is forged by cynicism and a sense of desperation (i.e. the building ground for all of my romantic relationships). The combination is persuasive. When Howard buys Lydia a big fast food lunch for her first day of auditions, my sarcasm-clogged reptile of a heart couldn’t help but melt at the sight. Forgive me. We live in a culture that fetishizes Sugar Daddy Warbuckses, so it’s endearing and yeah whatever tender to see father-figure daughter-figure find common ground in sat fats.
It’s also irrelevant, because whatever grace the movie has acquired at this point is then immediately lost in a little sinkhole called “the plot.” See, Lydia is a talented and ethereal young actress who quickly scores a major role in a YA Hollywood blockbuster. She plays a scorned vampire, and she’s able to connect with the role because – insert complexity – she’s been victimized herself. Nothing feeds a rescue fantasy better than sex trauma, so daddy vigilante Howard jumps at the opportunity to chase down Lydia’s predator. It’s all logical, if not tired, but what makes Trust Me insane is that it tries to shift so breezily from Bob Hope comedy to Lee Daniels tragedy, losing all of us in the transition. One minute you’re laughing at Howard’s busted Bluetooth, the next minute you’re crying for Lydia’s lost childhood, and there’s no way to enjoy the process unless you’re a homegrown Dexter with a serious Percocet addiction.
Movies like Trust Me flail because they’re so desperate to be seen as “funny yet poignant,” a highly esteemed genre of MFA storytelling. And hey, I can understand. As someone who spent her late adolescence writing 10,000 word narratives about a “perspicacious teenage cynic” and her “quirky suburban family . . . from HELL,” nothing feels better than audience laughter combined with audience pity. But the balance can be notoriously difficult to strike, and when comedic writers like Gregg casually throw on an abuse plot like a Brooks Brothers ascot, it feels sloppy and bizarre. Good comedy is hard to come by (see Blended, Neighbors, Cameron Diaz: birth – present). Trust Me is lucky enough to be rich in humor, containing a rapid-fire screenplay and all-star performances by Molly Shannon and Allison Janney. Too bad Gregg didn’t stick with what he’s good at, and saved the melodrama for LiveJournal.
Somewhere towards the end of Trust Me, Howard looks deep into himself, then stares out at the audience and – grab your barf bags – grows a pair of wings. Through “rescuing” Lydia, Howard has successfully met the demands of the script and the needs of his savior complex. He is no longer father figure but daddy martyr, no longer earthly agent but…heaven angel? The scene may be short, but it’s emblematic of a movie of forced metaphors and non-consensual narrative arcs. Howard transforms from human to phoenix, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez takes a dump in his grave. Lydia grows from child to femme fatale, and somewhere, a #YesAllWomen tweet is born. If only Trust Me had confidence in its own comedy, it wouldn’t have to borrow someone else’s pain.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at email@example.com if you aren’t from Moveon.org.