Pity the poor Hollywood husband, trudging along in the shadow of his famous wife while nursing underappreciated artistic ambitions of his own. Pity — if you must — poor Bart Freundlich, who, with loyal backing from the missus, Julianne Moore, and a gaggle of Upper West Side actor friends, has managed to coax into commercial release two dark and whiny films about family trouble (The Myth of Fingerprints and World Traveler). Of late, we are told in the weighty press book for his new film, Trust the Man, friends have been telling Freundlich he’s a funny guy, not a dark guy. For all I know he is, at least around the dinner table. But with the exception of one mildly amusing riff on sex with deli meats, funny makes a poor showing in this comedy about Manhattan family trouble that would surely still be looking for distribution were it not stuffed with indie talent on the order of Moore, Billy Crudup, Maggie Gyllenhaal and David Duchovny.
Write what you know, they say, and Freundlich obediently coughs up an à clef marriage between Rebecca (Moore, in mildly bitchy mode), a successful actress currently lending glamour to an uptown stage play, and Tom, played by Duchovny, who seems overcome either by extreme lassitude or — following his own brush with failure in his impressively awful directorial debut, House of D — fellow feeling for his director. When not trotting around trendy Manhattan with their two young, Tom sublimates his twin lusts for career satisfaction and his indifferent spouse’s body into an obsession with porn. In the interests of thematic parallel, Tom and Rebecca are best buds with Elaine (Gyllenhaal), a successful novelist, and Tobey (a goateed and irritating Crudup), a layabout who refuses to embrace life because he is terrified of death.
One couple has money and babies but no sex; the other has great sex but no babies. A foursome for our time! You’d think Freundlich might find something interesting to say here about modern marriage and, if the (mostly male) pundits are right, the collateral damage done to masculine self-esteem by high-achieving women propping up men who can’t or won’t work. Then there’s that whole 9/11 thing, rendering trivial the personal problems of New Yorkers with more money than sense, which means that if you’re going to make a movie about the narcissistic injuries of the yupoisie, it had better be good. But no, Freundlich has been boning up, with more industry than imagination, on early Woody Allen, and Trust the Man emerges a weakling comedy of manners riffing on extramarital nooky (Eva Mendes pops in briefly as a tempting old flame of Tobey’s, and Ellen Barkin has an all-too-brief cameo as a lesbian publisher with the hots for Elaine), kooky therapy groups, New Yorkers’ bad manners in public, the difficulty of finding parking spots and blah, blah, blah. A snowy Christmas hovers in the wings, bearing farce and crisis, but Freundlich is such a slight psychologist that we can’t be expected to give a damn about whether this tedious foursome comes to terms, let alone cheer for the bone of career success the director throws himself at the end. In art, perhaps — but not, alas, in life. TRUST THE MAN | Written and directed by BART FREUNDLICH | Produced by TIM PERELL, FREUNDLICH and SIDNEY KIMMEL | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | At Westside Pavilion, Monica 4-Plex, Playhouse 7