“Do what you need to do” is the double-edged mantra that recurs throughout the dark showbiz satire Trust Me, underlining the ethos of self-preservation and self-interest in the cutthroat motion picture industry. On the other hand, it’s also used as sarcastic encouragement for someone who’s about to make a huge mistake. Both definitions of the phrase are applicable to struggling talent agent Howard Holloway (Clark Gregg), a former child actor who makes his living by representing young performers. At another disastrous audition for one of his clients, Howard stumbles upon Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), a raw but talented teenage ingenue with a surly alcoholic father (Paul Sparks). Sensing something special about Howard’s straight-arrow pragmatism, Lydia hires him to negotiate the big three-picture franchise deal she just scored, in what proves to be a pivotal career moment for both wannabe Hollywood players.
Trust Me is ostensibly a comedy, and while it has its lighter moments – often in the predictable beats of Howard’s attempts to romance a single mom played by Amanda Peet – most of the humor is subtle and tempered by the fact that it genuinely attempts to take Howard’s profession seriously. Often displaying rare insight for a Hollywood satire, Trust Me portrays the industry as a collection of fragile and flawed individuals that are, in most cases, fully-realized human beings capable of helping or harming each other, instead of one-dimensional, overambitious cretins.
The credit for the film’s humanist sympathies lies with Gregg, both as an actor and a filmmaker. In the years since his 2008 feature writing and directing debut, Choke, Gregg’s profile has skyrocketed, mostly due to his recurring role as the beloved Agent Phil Coulson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series. His natural warmth and amiability fit Howard perfectly as he strives to act as a father figure for the troubled young actress who’s more or less left in his care – so perfect, in fact, that any attempts to hint at Howard’s seamier side inevitably fall flat. Gregg’s persona makes it easy to buy into Trust Me‘s positioning of Howard as one of the few nice guys in the business – one who still knows all the tricks that make Hollywood power brokering a credibly entertaining spectator sport.
For all its low-key pleasures, however, Trust Me is tonally uneven. It’s often of two minds about its milieu: is it the wacky, sensational place where pint-sized stars lord over businesspeople three times their age, or is it the treacherous emotional minefield that requires an agent who’s equal parts acting coach, mentor, and therapist? Gregg is often guilty of over-correcting for every element supporting the former – Sam Rockwell’s flamboyant ascot-rocking rival agent, for example – which culminates with a late swerve into exploitation territory that’s actually teased in the film’s opening seconds. Unfortunately, Trust Me does such a magnificent job pretending it’s an entirely different type of story that circling back to its far-fetched climax brings more disappointment than catharsis, putting a spurious punctuation mark on an otherwise enjoyable and knowing film.
“Trust Me” is available now on VOD and in select theaters on June 6.