Something has made Bart Freundlich step away from torrid family melodrama, and thank goodness for it. The writer-director's Trust the Man is a grown-up and intelligent version of a romantic comedy, and for all that it is fluffy and simple entertainment, it's also very good.
Julianne Moore, who has kept her talent for comedy a secret, plays Rebecca, a successful (if neurotic) actress who spends much of her time spurning advances from her bored, sex-addicted stay-at-home husband, Tom (David Duchovny). Tom's best friend is Rebecca's younger brother Tobey (Billy Crudup, ditto on the keen and heretofore hidden comedy prowess), a slacker freelance writer who is far more preoccupied with his therapist, his parking spot, and his own mortality than he is with the mounting frustration of longtime girlfriend Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring children's book author with a ticking biological clock.
Each couple is in one of those familiar ruts always showing up in advice columns. Since Tom became a house husband, sex is pretty much his only hobby, and it makes Rebecca less and less interested. And Elaine wants to know when Tobey will snap out of his immature haze, marry her already - after seven years of dating - and give her babies.
Their problems are not unique, certainly, and hardly groundbreaking, but they are relatable, as are their strategies for coping. Being savvy modern New Yorkers, they mostly rely on a steady dose of therapy, meeting for meals at an endless parade of Manhattan eateries, and talking. Lots and lots of talking, over coffee, at a hot dog stand, on the phone, Tom with Tobey, Elaine with Rebecca, Rebecca with Tobey. These people are nothing if not self-involved and self-aware.
But surprisingly, they are not as annoying as hyper-verbal, problem-ridden New Yorkers of the movies can often be. Freundlich created characters who are whiny indeed, but are so darn affable and charming that they aren't aggravating about it. Though Rebecca and Elaine are clearly set up to be "right" in their relationship woes, they easily could have been uncommunicative nags. And the guys bumble around with clueless selfishness, dipping into infidelity and cloaking themselves in smart ass comments and defiant irresponsibility. But Freundlich dresses them both in such a charming mien that they are precisely the men that women fall for despite themselves. Plus, everyone clings to witty sarcasm as the defense mechanism of choice, making them entertaining and likable despite (or because of) their faults.
It certainly helps that the entire cast is first rate and playing to their considerable strengths. Duchovny is charming and every inch a leading man, even within an ensemble, and Gyllenhaal can make even baby mania appealing. But both Crudup - always packaging himself as a "serious actor" despite his pin-up idol good looks - and Moore, who is arguably one of the best actresses working today, are winsome and goofy and veritable revelations of comedic acting. He's gawky and playful and she's self-deprecating and sharp, and both need to vow, right now, to do more grown-up comedies. We know how funny they can be; they can't hole up in serious drama forever.
The leads are aided by a wonderful supporting cast that is really a parade of hilarious cameos - Bob Balaban and Garry Shandling as psychiatrists, Ellen Barkin as a book editor interested in a little more than Elaine's manuscript, Eva Mendes as a friend of Tobey's from college who still causes him to embarrass himself horribly.
Trust the Man does have a few issues - for all that it is intelligent and mature, it's still a slight and breezy romantic comedy. And though Freundlich is a sharp writer, he goes a little adrift in the third act, not really able to wrap everything up without resorting to the handy clichés of the genre and an overly tidy little bow. But as far as quibbles go, these are rather small, when compared to the funny and entertaining whole.
The DVD includes deleted scenes, a commentary track from Freundlich and Duchovny, and a making-of featurette.
Trust the lady, too.