If all I knew of Clark Gregg was his writing and directorial work of a few years ago with his adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke, and now again with his stepping behind and in front of the camera as well as penning the original script of TRUST ME, I would have no qualms about saying this - we can trust in Clark Gregg. But then toss in his acting skills, be it performing Shakespeare, comedy, drama or action, and this takes on even greater truth and meaning. Be he Agent Coulson, Leonato, Agent Michael Casper, Jennifer Grey's husband or as now, Howard Holloway, I think it’s safe to say, when it comes to performance, acting and directing, if there’s one thing we can trust in, it’s Clark Gregg.
With TRUST ME, Gregg does an amazing job; packing a punch not only as director, writer and actor, but as producer and in overseeing editing, music, effects, his fingerprints are on display with every aspect of TRUST ME, and all for the better. Seeing the growth in his work not only as a writer, but as director since Choke, with TRUST ME, his visuals have more texture, are richer, serving as true visual companion to dialogue and performance. His storytelling, more fully fleshed out and alive [I believe in large part due to this being original material and not an adaptation]. There is a fluidity of life with color saturation at the climactic apex that metaphorically speaks to the larger-than-life ideals that some have of "Hollywood" and "being a star." Nods within his character construct to cliche perceptions without making them cliche bode well as an almost cautionary tale, while his character of child talent agent Howard Holloway is a refreshing joy. From characters to dialogue to emotional beats, TRUST ME is filled with heart, humor and a lot of truth.
Howard Holloway loved acting. He loved the limelight. He loved the attention. But that was a long time ago when he was a child star. Still relishing Hollywood and all its magic thanks to some very rose-colored memories, Howard is a now a struggling child-actor agent. Working out of his garage, he has one client; a client he’s about to lose because Howard has ethics, integrity and heart. He worries about the child and not the money. He doesn’t see coming the cut-throat tactics of rival Aldo who manages to snake all of Howard’s clients thanks to promises to parents of fame, fortune and rather expensive “bribes”. But despite the failures and setbacks, Howard never gives up and always has hope that his ship will come in and he’ll find that one kid that he can nurture and protect and help shine. And as hopeful as Howard is about business, he is equally as hopeful about his school boy crush on his single-mom neighbor Marcy who continually rebuffs his sweetly clumsy advances.
But, after one of the worst mornings ever, things look like they’re about to change for Howard. He hits it off with 13 year-old newcomer Lydia who is up for a starring role in Ang Lee’s new film, marketed as being the next big YA franchise. And as if things couldn’t get any better, Marcy agrees to go out with him. As Howard starts to navigate the rough waters of dealing with Lydia and her alcoholic father, who has his own ideas about his daughter, and embark on what looks like a promising relationship with Marcy, life is looking pretty good. Or is it? Is Howard’s kindness, morality and naivete about to get the best of him - again?
After seeing the film four times already myself [yes, Clark - up to four viewings now], I am convinced there is no one but Clark Gregg himself who could play Howard Holloway with the honesty and sincerity necessary to make the character work. Gregg gives Howard great grounding, honesty, truth and heart all wrapped in this great warmth yet childlike ebullience and enthusiasm. This is the kind of agent that agents should be, and the kind that kids, in particular, need, everyone needs. Ironically, while writing the script and creating the character of Howard, Gregg wasn’t even thinking of casting himself in the role. It was thanks to his wife Jennifer Grey and producing partner/casting agent Mary Vernieu that the tables turned when they told him, “This is a role for you. You wrote something that feels like you connect to.” With that being said, Gregg “[R]ealized I just turned 50 and I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m ever gonna have a chance to come this close to telling a story this purely.’” Although he initially “ thought it was a mistake right away the first day” and was at conflict within himself as he jokingly relates “the director was miserable with his choice for the lead and the lead didn’t like the director “, within minutes he knew he had made the right choice. “I felt like Howard Holloway. I felt completely like [being] thrown out a plane naked with a thing that might be made into a parachute. And it worked. It felt like that chaos really fed what I was trying to do as an actor.”
As for the rest of the cast? Spot on, starting with Sam Rockwell. An absolutely snarky delight as Aldo. Fast-talking smarmy and slick, Rockwell oozes conniving and manipulation. Simply delicious.
As mega-producer Agnes, Felicity Huffman is chameleonic in both appearance and persona. Virtually unrecognizable thanks to amazing hair, make-up and costuming, Huffman’s Meg is bitchy, arrogant, with a hipster hippie vibe; a performance that demands more screen time. When I asked Huffman what led her to TRUST ME and the role of Agnes, she was thoughtful and sincere on reflection. “If you want to act well, the first thing you do is you get a great script. And [TRUST ME] is a great script. It’s like Clark. It’s complicated, it’s surprising, it busts through the envelope and it’s also infused with this deep sense of joy and that’s what it was like working on the movie as well. So, I wanted to be a part of it.”
Joining in the fun and fracas as Agnes’ two-faced double-talking casting director Meg, Allison Janney delights with an effortless stoic glee.
Admittedly not generally a big admirer of Amanda Peet’s work, here as Marcy she is wonderful. As with Huffman, for Peet, Clark Gregg’s script as a whole was the big appeal. “I loved the script. I love his writing. . .He’s very good at romantic comedy, witty repartee, which is a really hard part of writing, to make it feel original and make something sizzle.” Peet engages from the get-go with a nervous get-out-of-my-face edge that makes Marcy fun. But she steps up her game, fueling Marcy’s emotional arc, giving her layers with a solid, grounding, caring confidence that is more than appealing. Then toss in the chemistry that Amanda Peet and Clark Gregg have. Engagingly sweet. He's like a puppy dog adoring her or a first schoolyard crush and she's initially put off and "Ewwww boys". A sweetly charming dance between them.
But the real show stopper is Saxon Sharbino. Wow! With a strong physical resemblance to Lindsay Lohan, as Lydia, Sharbino’s acting is off the charts. The girl's got some real chops and plays the wise-beyond-her-years yet innocent-abused-child to a tee and then turns on a dime with a manipulative knock-me-over-with-a-feather touch. The break-out performance of her career, Saxon Sharbino was attracted to the “the depth and the layers of Lydia. I liked that there was a twist to her and that there was a really great written script that I could play with and that I could show more emotions or different sides.” Watching her play off Gregg’s Howard and Paul Sparks' Ray is like watching a master acting class in manipulative nuance. Making the performance more indelible is Gregg’s keen directorial eye, particularly on knowing when to pull back with the camera and capture all three in the shots to watch the power ball in play.
And be on the lookout for some nice little cameos compliments of William H. Macy, Niecy Nash and Molly Shannon.
Notable is that TRUST ME is without a doubt a case where each of the actors called on some of their own personal experiences to layer truth into their performances.
Written and directed by Clark Gregg, TRUST ME bodes many laugh out loud funny moments that spring from genuine Hollywood-insider satire while drawing its warmth and subtext from the subtle humor, and tragedy, that comes from life itself. As astutely noted by Saxon Sharbino, “I think the movie gives insight into the darker side of Hollywood and there’s definitely stories and cases where that type of stuff does happen. But there’s also a nicer side with good people and it is kind of a conflict between people who have good morals and good standards and the ones who are just after fame and money. I think it kind of shows both sides of that with Howard and Aldo.” Insightful in his construct, Gregg deftly creates flawed three-dimensional characters who are at times their own worst enemies, laced with traits guaranteed to resonate within each of us. “There’s an awful lot of cases of people who achieve the kind of fame at a very young age that was distortive and it didn’t pan out to be a necessarily joyful life. . .this idea of this transformative power of stardom. . .or success or wealth. It’s across all businesses. This is one I happen to know the language of and seemed like a potent metaphor to get into it.”
Focusing on the idea of “someone who had lost his innocence, who once had a good heart” and then putting him “in a position where he had to make a choice between everything he always wanted or doing the right thing”, TRUST ME is bookended with a voice-over wrap-around that tonally sets the stage with the darker and psychologically deeper, more cautionary elements of the story, transitioning into the lighter notes that lead Howard on this chapter of life’s journey. Interesting is that while writing the script, the deeper Gregg dug and researched, the more TRUST ME “stopped feeling like an edgy comedy and felt like it needed to try to do something more to kind of transform as the characters were trying to into a new thing. That felt very scary.” His trepidation pays off with the final product and with the ultimate narrative construct. You see this character transformation take hold in the third act as the film takes on a much darker tone, veering into some more sensitive territory, exposing the audience to a reality that does indeed exist. While some may find this uneven or ill-suited to the film as a whole, I find it necessary and key not only to the tone and character of both Howard and Lydia but in taking TRUST ME beyond being a light comedy. Clark Gregg certainly didn’t “shield” himself or shy away from gutsy storytelling with TRUST ME.
Together with his cinematographer Terry Stacey, Gregg delivers a wonderfully rich visual tonal bandwidth. Steeped in a very organic fluidity and naturalistic clarity of lighting, during more dramatic moments and particularly when Howard is daydreaming or hallucinating of "what could be", color becomes just a bit more saturated, a bit richer (i.e., the gorgeous blue suit and that dreamy almost peacock blue car), even the wood of the office bookcases is more luxe, and the camera pulls back just a bit wider allowing us to take in the entire shot but also creating a bit of distance between the actor and camera as if "in a dream far away". The visual bandwidth perfectly compliments and melds with the emotional.
Adding to the darker tonal shift of the third act, Gregg employs some exquisitely designed VFX as a sensory storytelling aid that elevates TRUST ME to a new level of filmmaking for him.
As for Mark Kilian's score; there's a charm to it that is soft and subtle, at time lilting and light, following the story, running alongside it, but never leading the audience or the film.
A telling tale, even a cautionary tale, equally ripe with wry, rich sarcasm, decency and honesty, with Clark Gregg at the helm, feel safe in knowing you can put your movie-going trust in TRUST ME.
Written and Directed by Clark Gregg
Cast: Clark Gregg, Saxon Sharbino, Sam Rockwell, Amanda Peet, Allison Janney, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, William H. Macy, Molly Shannon