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Two Girls and a Guy

Review: Downey scores with 'Two Girls and a Guy'

Web posted on: Tuesday, May 26, 1998 5:09:33 PM EDT

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- In late 1997 I attended a symposium at Lincoln Center during which some of the best-known film critics in the country screened their favorite moments from that year's crop of films, and discussed why they considered these scenes to be prime examples of modern American filmmaking. (I was in the audience, not on stage, thus cementing the event's legitimacy.) One of the participants, oddly enough, was not a critic at all, but a filmmaker -- James Toback, who rather pompously dissected a scene from his own soon-to-be-released movie, "Two Girls and a Guy."

The scene consisted of Robert Downey, Jr. (who stars in the film with Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner) staring himself down in a bathroom mirror and berating the reflection for its selfishness and inexplicable need to hurt the people it loves the most. Though Downey, who was improvising, eventually carries the idea so deeply into his own psyche that you can't understand his reference points, it is an effective display. Downey had recently been sentenced to prison time for his multiple heroin busts, and it was a fascinating, though highly uncomfortable, thing to watch. After about 30 seconds I had had enough, but the confession played on for a lot longer than that.

Then Toback gets up and, just in case you missed the point, proceeds to explain that the scene is so amazing because Downey was tongue-lashing himself, not the character he was playing. His zeal for the sequence seemed more than a little vampirish, like Francis Coppola's enthusiastic explanations of the moment in "Apocalypse Now" when he got Martin Sheen so stinking drunk and loaded with self-loathing that the actor actually punched his own reflection in a hotel room mirror, shattering it and badly cutting his hand. It's right there in the movie if you want to see it, but it's certainly not the centerpiece.

New hope for a bright light

I've stated a couple times before that I think Downey is the great actor of his generation. I also feel that it would be a wonderful thing if he could manage to keep himself out of the slammer and straighten up his life. The reverberations of River Phoenix's pointless death are still being felt in the film industry, and a second bright light doesn't need to burn itself out for reasons that are not altogether obvious if you take even half-a-step back from the tortured artist trip. Or maybe just half-a-step back from L.A.

"Two Girls and a Guy"

Clip: "The Truth"
(2.5Mb QuickTime movie)

Theatrical trailer
(7Mb QuickTime movie)

So now I've seen the movie, and I'm happy to announce that Downey is spectacular, and Toback ends up, possibly inadvertently, making more comments on his own self-delusion than anything in Downey's troubled past. As the movie opens, two beautiful young women (Graham and Wagner) wait outside their actor boyfriend's New York loft, ready to surprise him after his trip to Los Angeles. The singular "boyfriend" is intentional, because the "two girls" soon discover that they've been sleeping with the same man for the past 10 months, and he's been telling both of them that he not only loves them, but is physically repulsed by the idea of sex with another woman. They break into the loft and wait to ambush him when he gets home.

The scene before Downey gets there is far-and-away the weakest portion of the film, due to ridiculously over-analytical dialogue -- sex, according to Graham's character, is "matter returning to its pure state of unison after a temporary separation of time and space" -- and Wagner's sheer inability to act. Her words throughout the movie have a tendency to dance around on her tongue for a moment before she can manage to spit them out. The daughter of Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, Wagner is in way over her head, but given the current state of Hollywood casting, her bloodline and highly appealing bellybutton will probably keep her in front of the cameras for some time to come.

Raw look, sound

Then Downey shows up and things get rocking. The movie has a raw look and sound (several lines of dialogue are delivered while the actors' mouths are clamped shut), and for good reason. Shot for peanuts, on one set and in just a few days, Toback didn't have a lot of time or money for re-takes. This works against Wagner, and Graham is solid as always, but Downey gets to wing a lot of it, his quick mind and sure-fire instincts enabling him to paint a picture of a manipulative Lothario who's actually convinced himself that his deceiving is the result of an actor's inventive soul.

There's no conventional plot, just a high-velocity verbal badminton match as the characters bat their ideas about sexuality and monogamy between one another. Toback has never made a secret of his own exploits as a womanizer, even writing a book at one point about the sex-and-drugs days that he enjoyed with Jim Brown in the actor's Hollywood Hills home, and I was extremely disappointed when the two women quit comically laying into Downey's character in favor of getting drunk on a bottle of scotch and insinuating that it might be fun to dabble in some lesbian action ... if not a threesome with Downey.

Hubba-hubba. Toback used to be a literature professor, and his movies have always contained awkward literary allusions, but here he's trying to mash Shakespearean soul-searching (Downey's actor breaks into a soliloquy at one point) and a "Penthouse" letter. Graham winds up enmeshed in a lengthy sex scene with Downey, for no discernible reason except that Downey's character, that lucky bastard, is scoring again!

Toback wants to dissect the inner-workings of a two-timer, but eventually opts for everybody (or every body) getting hot-and-bothered and/or rubbing up against each other. It's one of the most childish conclusions I've ever seen to such an adult-oriented film. It may not sink Downey's performance, but it sure does sink Toback's lofty ambitions. I can't, however, completely disavow a director who (in this day and age) manages to bite off more than he can chew. Most of this risky movie works, and that's got to be good enough for the time being.

"Two Girls and a Guy"'s sex scene between Graham and Downey, which features less-than-camouflaged moments of oral stimulation, almost got the film an NC-17 rating. The rest is loaded with strong language, and the main topic is, of course, sex. Definitely for grown-ups, which in itself makes it something of a treat. Rated R. 92 minutes.


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