The ending of Clark Gregg's Trust Me , which takes place at a cheesy red carpet event in Hollywood, will be one of the dark images of show business I'll always remember, like Norma Desmond's macabre march down the stairway of her rotted mansion in Sunset Boulevard, or Sydney Falco sleeping in his dank little office in Sweet Smell of Success. It's bleak, and poetic, and considering that we've been watching the machinations of some pretty slimy people, the bloodshed and violence has a sad inevitability.
The film doesn't start out that way. It's the story of Howard Holloway (Gregg), a bumbling talent agent in LA who handles child actors. He's a very caring agent, able to soothe an insecure kid's nerves before the big auditions. Still, the children tend to be an ungrateful bunch, often leaving him to sign on with the well- connected Aldo Stankiss (Sam Rockwell), an effete agent who travels with a seven-foot bodyguard. When the kids lose a role to Lindsay Lohan's brother or Justin Bieber's cousin, they immediately blame poor Howard. He keeps hustling, though, working out of his garage, getting into screaming matches with casting agents, and attending middle school play productions in hopes of finding a new kid star.
The early scenes are played for comedy but feel realistic, with the showbiz moms looking ugly and strained, their kids numb from too much attention. The casting agents and producers, almost always women, are well groomed but hard, as if they'd learned their jobs by watching old David Mamet plays. Howard is really too nice a guy to play in this league, but as a former child actor himself who never landed a big role, he keeps battling. He'll play dirty if necessary, which makes him dangerous.
Howard feels his luck begin to change when he meets Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), a mega-talented youngster from Tulsa who asks him to be her agent. She's up for a major role in a new vampire epic based on the sort of Harry Potter/Twilight book franchise that the studio knows will be good for a trilogy. Howard doesn't know why this amazing young girl likes him but he isn't about to let the opportunity get away. There are some obstacles, though. His rival Aldo wants in on the action, too. Worse, Lydia's father Ray (Paul Sparks), a drunk redneck who sees his daughter as nothing but a cash cow, thinks Aldo might be the better agent.
Howard risks losing everything by not signing the contract to get Lydia into the movie. He holds out for more money, which results in panic all around. Gregg, who also wrote and directed, is riveting here. He moves through the simple contract signing with confidence, certain that the producers will bend to his will because he has the girl they want. Still, there's just enough quaver in his voice that we aren't exactly sure how confident he is. He plays it like a poker player who doesn't have a royal flush, but has a good enough hand and wants to gamble. If he loses, well, he's closer than he's ever been to the big time, so there's no sense in folding, even as he's being menaced by Ray. We sense that Howard is so accustomed to losing that he feels winning must require some kind of recklessness. When he finally gets the desired money and perks, we half-expect him to beg off and ask for more, so fascinated is he by having, for once, the whip hand.
Gregg is a recognizable face from many years of television and movie work. With Trust Me, his second feature as a director, he shows himself to be an inspired moviemaker, moving each scene along as if he's a charioteer driving a team of horses around a curve at breakneck speed. But its not just Gregg's gift for pacing that makes the movie sparkle, it's that he creates an underlying tone of melancholy and fear, partly with the sad, distant music of Mark Kilian that plays even during Howard's moments of triumph. The characters we see shoving and arguing in line at a taco stand, the neurotic energy in the streets, the constant blaring of sirens, the menace of Aldo's bodyguard, the stories of past child stars who committed suicide or died of drug overdoses, all suggest a terrible danger that seems to encircle the story like a slowly tightening noose.When Howard begins to suspect that something incestuous is going on between Lydia and her father, the movie lurches into a new gear. We're not sure what's going on, we just hope Howard can use his wiles to straighten things out.
The supporting cast includes Amanda Peet, Felicity Huffman, Molly Shannon, Allison Janney, and William H. Macy, but these secondary roles are a mixed bag, as if Gregg the writer was too busy creating the main characters to flesh out these smaller roles. Huffman, for instance, as a bitchy movie producer, is simply rehashing her usual role as a sarcastic ballbuster; when she threatens to make Howard's life "a sea of flaming shit," or something along those lines, it sounds like her character has been reading too many bad screenplays. On the other hand, Shannon gets the most out of a five minute scene as a frustrated showbiz mom, making me wonder if there's anything this talented woman can't do. Where the movie truly succeeds is in the three-way dance between Gregg, Sharbino, and Sparks. Sharbino is convincing as Lydia, a young girl who appears innocent but possesses enough self-awareness to be dangerous. Sparks is on target as Ray, walking the alcoholic's tightrope between dangerous and pitiful.
Trust Me is different from most recent depictions of Hollywood in that it's unapologetic and doesn't laugh at itself. Whether it's a TV show like HBO's overrated 'Entourage' or Showtime's overly cute 'Episodes,' or a movie like State and Main (which Gregg acted in many years ago), most shows with a Hollywood backdrop feel a bit too self-congratulatory, as if to say "Oh, aren't we wonderful for making fun of ourselves!" Trust Me offers no such cushion. Gregg's movie doesn't invite you to enjoy these people. In fact, one will wonder if Hollywood is really this bad, if the people there are as cold-blooded and manipulative as depicted in this story. As I watched these characters cross and double cross each other, I thought how strange it is that people go through so much angst in a business that produces mostly forgettable garbage. Yet, if the town can still turn out a good movie like Trust Me, the Howard Holloways of Hollywood are not doing their jobs in vain.