Two Girls, a Guy and a Lot of Telling Revelations
Any thorough collection of this decade’s most bizarre movie moments will have to feature the scene from James Toback’s “Two Girls and a Guy” in which star Robert Downey Jr. mocks and lectures himself with his face nearly pressed against a bathroom mirror.
For the minute or two that the scene lasts, Downey is a spectacle of psychological ruin. There’s genuine self-hatred in his bulging, reddened face, a cry of desperation in his improvised dialogue and, when he holds a gun to his head, he seems nearly overcome by the desire to pull the trigger.
It’s a weird and, in some ways, darkly funny scene. But what makes it truly bizarre is its context. Downey’s character, Blake, is a New York actor vamping for time after being confronted by two girlfriends who’ve just discovered each other while waiting for him outside his SoHo apartment. Blake is embarrassed and temporarily flummoxed, but his guilt seizure in the bathroom is out of all proportion to that crisis.
We don’t get the feeling we’re watching Blake attacking Blake, for his deception. In fact, he’s been doing a great job of rationalizing his behavior with Carla (Heather Graham) and Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner). The only thing he seems to be upset about is getting caught. What we’re really seeing is Downey attacking Downey, for deceiving himself. It’s like a classic drug rant, and given Downey’s admitted addictions at the time the film was shot, it has the unsettling air of voyeurism.
Toback, directing his first film in eight years, is not above exploiting an actor or an issue. From his brilliant debut film, “Fingers,” about a mob henchman with secret ambitions to be a concert pianist, and his nervy expostulations about the meaning of life in his 1990 documentary “The Big Bang,” Toback has been a provocative, in-your-face filmmaker.
With “Two Girls and a Guy,” Toback was out to exploit Downey, whom he had directed in the 1987 “The Pick-Up Artist,” from the beginning. He has told interviewers he got the idea for the movie when he saw the disheveled actor making a handcuffed court appearance on TV and wrote the script in a four-day creative frenzy. The film was shot in just 11 days, with Downey’s intuition given free rein.
The result is a flawed tour de force, in a format that at times resembles experimental theater. It’s one act, one setting, three characters and a flock of ideas about fidelity, monogamy, commitment and sexuality in the ‘90s. It starts with the streetwise, sharp-tongued Lou and the quietly confident Carla meeting outside, then breaking into Blake’s apartment, where they compare their nearly identical notes about their relationships with him.
Then Blake returns from his two-week job-hunting trip to Los Angeles and, unaware that he has guests, begins calling the four important people in his life--Carla, Lou, his ailing mother and his agent--all the while entertaining a spirited interpretation of “Cum Sancto Spiritu” from Vivaldi’s oratorio “Gloria.” The immediate picture we get is of a man extremely pleased with himself.
That picture changes only marginally after the girlfriends reveal themselves, and the story accelerates from the amusingly angry and epithet-riddled confrontations to what plays as serious soul-searching. Toback is exploring several issues at once, but none of them very deeply. We come away from the story with little understanding of Blake, and even less of Carla and Lou. Given their initial outrage, their later confessions about their own infidelities are so off the wall, you might expect it all to be a vengeful put-on. Apparently not.
Toback, whose own Wilt Chamberlain-size sex life has been chronicled in magazines, seems to be revealing more of himself than of his characters. The film’s heavily touted sex scene, some reciprocated oral sex between Blake and Carla in the shadows of his bedroom, is a near pornographic detour in the story, used to make Toback’s point that despite the betrayal, anger and humiliation--or maybe because of them--lust reigns!
“Two Girls and a Guy” takes a lot of dubious side trips and ends with an event so unexpected it could have come from a different movie. Maybe if Toback had taken 11 days to write the script and four to shoot it, things would have worked out better. As it is, “Two Girls” is a small movie with some big moments and a lot of unfinished business.
* MPAA rating: R, for a strong sex scene, strong language and sexual dialogue, and for a violent image. Times guidelines: The single sex scene, cut down to receive an R rating, is tame compared to the language.
‘Two Girls and a Guy’
Robert Downey Jr.: Blake Allen
Heather Graham: Carla
Natasha Gregson Wagner: Lou
Angel David: Tommy
Frederique Van Der Wal: Carol
Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc. presents an Edward R. Pressman Film/Muse productions. Directed and written by James Toback. Executive producers Daniel Bigel and Mike Mailer. Produced by Chris Hanley, Gretchen McGowan and Edward R. Pressman. Cinematography by Barry Markowitz. Production design, Kevin Thompson. Editor, Alan Oxman. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
* In selected theaters around Southern California.