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When a romantic comedy opens with two fart jokes in about two minutes, you should probably brace yourself for the worst. A cast that includes David Duchovny, his charming Mulder long dead, isn’t a great sign, either. Come to think of it, the words “romantic comedy” are omen enough nowadays. Which all makes Trust the Man an imperfect if pleasant surprise—it barely skirts wacky and it drops plot lines, but there’s more than enough truth and humor here about love to revive this typically cheap-joke, contrivance-laden genre.
Even the title, though ultimately a little baffling, could be considered a nice bait-and-switch: Ladies, tell your guy that you want him to come with you to see Trust the Man, and he’ll think, Undercover cops? Class warfare? Rings of prostitution and/or drugs? before realizing that it’s actually the kind of movie that tends to get slapped with that grating, long-tired nickname (hint: rhymes with ick-ick). Actually, dudes will probably be relieved to see that the male characters are not only spared women’s-fantasy emasculation, but they’re also pretty damn funny—and get as much screen time to bitch as the females do.
Writer-director Bart Freundlich’s comedy centers on two couples: stay-at-home dad Tom (Duchovny) and actress Rebecca (Julianne Moore, Freundlich’s wife), who are married with a couple of tykes, and Rebecca’s emotionally stunted sportswriter brother, Tobey (Billy Crudup), who has spent seven happily untethered years with Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring children’s novelist. But the film spares us from clear heroes and villains: Tom’s a sex addict, and all Elaine’s got on the brain is having a baby—one a bit smaller than her clueless boyfriend.
New York in winter is the setting, which not only reflects the film’s romantic difficulties but also feels right for a film that’s a cousin of a classic Woody Allen gab-/gag-/analysis-fest. Each couple goes through similar trials—the lure of affairs, the brief separations, the you-just-don’t-get-its. They even have conversations that are nearly parallel, regarding attractive women. Freundlich, probably best known for 1997’s The Myth of Fingerprints, has a knack for dead-on relationship details, whether it’s petty bickering during a foursome dinner date or a completely unrelated stressor—in one case, a towed car—inducing hysterics that swap “Shut the hell up!” for “I want to have a baby, and you don’t!”
The rifts are less caustic than in, say, Allen’s Husbands and Wives, and the comedy is as often silly (the aforementioned wackiness includes a hypervigilant usher at the chaos-ridden opening night of Rebecca’s play) as it is sarcastic (“I guess you thought it’d be like marrying a hooker?” Tobey asks Tom, who kvetches about his wife’s lack of nymphomania). Moore and Gyllenhaal are radiant and sharp as women proactively struggling to make their relationships work, but the male leads are the true attention-getters: Duchovny, whose Tom tells a particularly twisted sexaholics support group that he likes to be wrapped in deli meats and then later admits that he lied (“I just wanted to fit in”), is relaxed and seemingly relieved to finally have the chance to play around with a decent script. And Crudup, usually Serious Indie Guy, is loose and nearly unrecognizable as Tobey, who’s simultaneously goofy yet obsessed with mortality (“Do you believe in fate?” Elaine asks him. “And not just that we are fated to death?”). Except for Bob Balaban, who, as he does in Lady in the Water, gets a laugh out of his few lines as Tobey’s professionally deadpan but personally volatile therapist, the cameos here are sadly wasted: Garry Shandling and Ellen Barkin are each thrown one scene and forgotten—along with subplots such as Elaine’s book. But these are petty quibbles if you subscribe to Trust the Man’s emphasis on forgiveness and big-picture thinking—and if you remember that it’s not Failure to Launch.
The Illusionist is more difficult to categorize: Let’s just say it’s the kind of film M. Night Shyamalan wishes he could still make. Written and directed by Neil Burger (based on a short story by Steven Millhauser), the movie is a period piece that incorporates the supernatural, romance, murder, and tyrannical authority into a refreshingly original plot—and may make ticketholders believe that screenwriters can still keep us guessing up until a satisfying end.
Edward Norton, intense as ever, stars as Eisenheim, an increasingly popular magician in 1900 Vienna. In front of rapt audiences, he conjures tiny orange trees from seeds and makes a woman’s handkerchief disappear from the box she’s holding and reappear by his side. A chief inspector (Paul Giamatti) is initially a fan, but he’s soon ordered by Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) to figure out Eisenheim’s secrets, from inspecting the theater in which he performs to asking the magician directly to reveal the workings of a minor trick. When Leopold attends a show in which his betrothed, Sophie (Jessica Biel), volunteers to participate in a creepy trick that plays on the notion of the soul—and in which he ends up being fooled onstage—Leopold demands that the inspector step up his efforts lest Eisenheim be viewed as more powerful than the prince himself. After it’s revealed that Sophie and Eisenheim were childhood friends who lost touch but are clearly still drawn to each other, the royal “who likes to give his lady friends a good thrashing now and again” unsurprisingly goes batshit.
The Illusionist could have easily gone ponderous. Nobody ever seems to smile, there’s not a lick of humor in the script, and, well, this is a period piece. But even Biel, whose main job is to look lovely, can’t spoil an interpretation this engrossing. Norton and Sewell make their characters worthy and sometimes rather frightening adversaries, lending them, respectively, quietly smug confidence and increasingly uncontrollable rage. Giamatti may not, for once, be Oscar-worthy here, but speaking in gravelly whispers, his inspector is nearly as absorbing as the apparent sorcerer.
Composer Philip Glass, who added another layer of infuriating pretension to 2004’s Yes, redeems himself by keeping the score low-key and appropriately spooky as the magic man raises his game by seemingly resurrecting the dead. Touches in Eisenheim’s act, such as the sudden appearance of tiny butterflies and silvery, slithery clouds of “souls” add a delicate beauty to the progressively darkening story. And cinematographer Dick Pope wraps it all in a gorgeous package, bathing nearly each location as well as the cast in ethereal gold. In the film, a newspaper review of an Eisenheim performance asserts that the magician’s talent has developed beyond trickery and is approaching art. From start to finish, it’s a place The Illusionist has unequivocally reached.CP