Men these days don't seem to want to be men. Or at least not the kind of men their fathers or grandfathers were. The lad culture of NASCAR, fart jokes, video games, Jackass and Maxim are now coin of the realm.
And in film, the brand of adult masculinity once personified by mustached, testosterone-pumped he-men like Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds and James Caan is now fodder for parody.
The preferred state for movie masculinity these days appears to be perpetually teenaged, an extension of author Christopher Noxon's identification of a Peter Pan generation in Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown-Up.
Will Ferrell in everything from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy to Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Jack Black in Nacho Libre and Adam Sandler in everything play cartoon versions of real guys -- ridiculously exaggerated macho goofuses who seem to parody the very idea of adult masculinity. Instead, they revel in perpetual boyish good times, goofing on the hyper-masculinity that defined male icons of the past with their ridiculous preening machismo and pretense of invulnerability.
And now come the men in director Bart Freundlich's Trust the Man, a film that uses romantic comedy to put a genre spin on this Boy/Man grapple with the responsibilities and expectations of adult life.
Trust the Man is centered on two men living in Manhattan and dealing with the usual lad issues of baby-making, not enough sex, adultery, commitment-phobia and, naturally, porn.
For a time, Trust the Man is an incisive, clever break from the usual dopey comedy treatments of adult men wrestling mightily with the notion of taking on the responsibility other generations accepted as a matter of course.
Tom (David Duchovny) is married to a beautiful actress, Rebecca (Julianne Moore, Freundlich's real-life wife), has a pair of adorable children, a palatial New York apartment and -- many men in the audience will be thinking, "Sweet!" -- a gig as a stay-at-home dad. His confidante and fellow Boy/Man is also Rebecca's brother: farting, slacking, therapy-addicted freelance writer Tobey (Billy Crudup). Tom is coping with Rebecca's aversion to sex and his growing attraction to another woman, and Tobey is trying to fend off his longtime girlfriend Elaine's (Maggie Gyllenhaal) intensifying pleas for marriage and a baby.
Trust the Man initially coasts on the breezy, seductive pleasures of its charmed setting and Freundlich's mastery of urbane, well-observed comic bits of business centered on the Grand Canyon gulf that separates men and women. A scene where Tom tries to get off by having his wife describe a porn film to him is especially hilarious. While Tom hunkers under the covers, primed for his wife's dirty talk, Rebecca slaps her retainer in her mouth and proceeds to describe horrible bikini waxes, bad lighting, the hokey scenario, etc. In a matter of minutes, she has literally taken the rise out of her husband.
Trust the Man edges toward a truthful, ribald take on the male view of relationships.
But it just as often ruts around in the kind of lame comedy that offers no particular insight into the characters or their situations. Quickly enough, Freundlich has traded his smart take on the contemporary Peter Pan male sensibility for increasingly implausible chick flick-equivalent slapstick involving sex-addiction seminars and fist fights with an uptight Lincoln Center caterer.
It is refreshing to see Freundlich throw off the shackles of middlebrow angst that defined his debut family melodrama The Myth of Fingerprints and get into the messy, uproarious nitty-gritty of these smart, screwed-up urbanites' lives. Trust the Man feels like a step in the right direction, and is often a relevant examination of the different expectations men and women bring to relationships, though it still has some of the amorphous, scattershot qualities and tendency toward oversimplification and superficiality that mar his other work.