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August 16-22, 2006

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'Trust the Man': much ado about less than nothing

By Richard von Busack

A DIRECTOR doesn't need much excuse to set some men and some women to sassing one another. But Bart Freundlich's would-be comedy Trust the Man crumbles because it forgets the main reason for the rivalries and neurosis in Manhattan—material that's never ignored in the many Woody Allen movies that Trust the Man raids.

In New York, a lack of trust is grounded in not just folk wisdom, but bitter experience. Fear of success is justified by watching the spectacular crashing, burning, and melting-down of careers. And though Freundlich made a very good but hard to take drama called World Traveler, about a husband's terror of domestic bliss, this comedy on the very same subject is about as sharp-toothed as a terry-cloth puppet.

Two overgrown boys—convivial brothers-in-law—enjoy undemanding lives in the West Village. Tom (David Duchovny) is a stay-at-home dad; Tobey (Billy Crudup) is a sports journalist, though he scarcely works at it. Tobey's sister and Tom's wife, Rebecca (Julianne Moore), is a famous actress, in rehearsals for a play about a mad Southern Belle at Lincoln Center. (When we see it staged, it looks awfully like Lars von Trier's Manderlay.)

Sounds like blissful success, but Tom and Rebecca are so bed-dead that rigor mortis has set in. As a horny house-husband, Tom has his days free and a child to squire around—and kids are notorious chick-magnets. Tobey's live-in girlfriend, Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal), longs for a ring and a child of her own. The upshot is that both men end up alone and longing to win back the women in their lives.

Look at the setup from either angle, and it doesn't make sense: Tobey's fear of getting married and settling down doesn't have any weight when we see how little responsibility Tom has. (They say some actors are on autopilot, but Duchovny seems to roll through his movies in an electric golf cart.) And Rebecca is not so deeply involved in her craft that she's shutting her husband down. And the eventual affairs the two men have are of no real heat: Eva Mendes, of the slightly too-loud voice, the luxurious hair and the incandescent teeth, is lit with little care.

Happily, Ellen Barkin, as an aggro lesbian with a diagonal smile, shows more Manhattan energy pulsing through her. As for the rest of the characters, they need to ask themselves the existential New York question: Wouldn't I be happier in the suburbs?

For all the talk of sex in Trust the Man, there's no need underneath it. There also isn't that helpless humiliation that gets into the talk of the too-long celibate, which puts edges on their putdowns. What else makes adolescence such a time of sarcasm but that agonizing need?

Heatless and juiceless as it is, Trust the Man finally turns conservative. The famous actress needs to realize that being a wife comes first. And Elaine can only be fulfilled after she shouts to the skies, "I want to get married and have a baby." If that's Freundlich's opinion of women, why trust the man?

Movie Times Trust the Man (R; 103 min.), directed and written by Bart Freundlich, photographed by Tim Orr and starring David Duchovny. Billy Crudup, Julianne Moore and Maggie Gyllenhaal, plays at selected theaters in the valley.

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