Fans know him as the late (or based on his involvement in the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, resurrected?) Agent Coulson in The Avengers, but before and after his comic book career, Clark Gregg is a triple force actor/writer/director. Gregg added screenwriter to his resume after penning the 2000 thriller What Lies Beneath, then took the director’s chair for the 2008 Chuck Palahniuk adaptation Choke. Now, after a few years rubbing shoulders with Marvel’s superteam, he’s back at Tribeca Film Festival with his latest and most vivacious work yet, a biting satire of the world Gregg has been immersed in for the last five years.
Trust Me follows child actor agent Howard (Gregg) as he traverses the seas of talent wrangling. At first, he seems like the typical down-on-his-luck shmuck, unable to secure prospective newcomers or hold on to the clients he has. Early on, we see Howard stuck in the middle between Hollywood dealmakers and a terrifying stage mom (Molly Shannon). Life clearly isn’t cutting him a break, as he loses his negotiations and caps it off with a vehicular punch to the gut. Sam Rockwell plays rival agent Aldo, who appears whenever life needs to rub Howard’s failures in his face.
Things pick up when Howard meets Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), a tween actress ready to bust out of her parents sloppy management strategy. She sees potential in the lackluster representative, and when she presents him with the opportunity to shepherd her in to the next big Young Adult franchise (a la Hunger Games), he seizes the opportunity. Contending with her alcoholic father, Aldo’s studio ties, and Murphy’s Law slapping him this way and that, Howard goes all in on Lydia — and it’s only when he’s up to his neck in Hollywood bulls**t does he realize he might be caught up in something dangerous.
Tonally, Trust Me glides back and forth between comedy and thrills like few others. Gregg’s history working with the Atlantic Theater Company and dramatic titan David Mamet is apparent on every level here — what starts as a biting satire of Hollywood nonsense twists and turns into a full-blown thriller. It’s not an elegant evolution, but it’s dynamic, shocking, and absorbing. Trust Me kicks off with snappy dialogue that’s overflowing with business jargon and weaponized for laughs. Gregg plays fast and loose behind the camera, convincing us that Trust Me is a Curb Your Enthusiasm riff on State & Main.
But as Howard’s life takes an upward turn, Gregg’s script steers to darker places and more dramatic turns. On the evening of Lydia’s big audition, Howard rehearses lines and pushes the young actress to take the fluffy fantastical YA material seriously (a truly difficult task). Sharbino holds her on against Gregg in the comedic back-and-forths, but in an instance of acting-on-top-of-acting, she asserts as a real discovery. She blows Howard and the audience away.
From the very beginning, Clark chooses to soundtrack his jaunty look at the entertainment industry with a score straight out of neo-noirs. It’s sparse and in opposition to what we see. But it’s the perfect build-up to the third act, that goes off the rails in a welcome way. The movie daringly subverts expectations like no Marvel movie ever could. Gregg keeps peppering Trust Me with comedy (courtesy of the devilish studio executive played by Felicity Huffman) and heart (his relationship with Amanda Peet’s next door neighbor/object of affection is quite sweet), but in the end, the lesson is clear: Hollywood is a frightening, bloodthirsty world and no one is safe to its traps. That’s why the twists of Trust Me feel natural — for anyone with inside knowledge of the industry, success one day and complete failure the next is just another week on the job.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches