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Two Girls and a Guy

movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Two Girls and a Guy

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Heather Graham
Director: James Toback
Rated: R
RunTime: 92 Minutes
Release Date: April 1998
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Natasha Gregson Wagner, Angel David, Frederique Van Der Wal

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
2 stars out of 4

It's impossible to watch Robert Downey Jr. in "Two Girls and a Guy" without relating his onscreen performance with his off-screen life. Director James Toback wrote the film as a vehicle for his friend Downey, tailoring the story to focus on the actor's all too well known demons. The result is a riveting, often painfully intimate look at the soul of a man who is dangerously out of control. You leave the theater feeling that Downey has opened up and shared the darkest, most personal parts of himself. Unless, of course, he was just fooling us, the same way his character fooled the women who confront him in the story.

Set almost entirely in a SoHo loft, "Two Girls and a Guy" is essentially a three-character drama. Lou (Natasha Wagner) and Carla (Heather Graham from "Boogie Nights" and "Lost In Space") are strangers who meet outside a Manhattan apartment building as they wait to surprise their respective boyfriends. While making small talk, they come to realize they are both waiting for the same man. Blake Allen (Downey,) a charming, self-absorbed young actor, has been seeing Carla three days a week and Lou on three other days. As for the seventh day, it's safe to assume he wasn't resting.

The shaken women decide a confrontation is in order. Lou climbs the fire escape, breaks out an apartment window and buzzes Carla in. Soon, the object of their affection returns home and the mind games begin.

As a film, "Two Girls and a Guy" is a somewhat clunky, claustrophobic piece of work, playing like an occassionally inspired, often strained exercise in improvisational theater. But as a character study, the piece is absolutely mesmerizing. Graham and Wagner are exceptional actors, creating a strong dynamic between their very different characters. Carla is a well-educated woman with a sophisticated air, complimented by an earthy nature and a sharp tongue. She has the reserved demeanor that often accompanies classical beauty, while Lou is the cuter and more outgoing of the two. Lacking the schooling of her peers, Lou makes up for it with street smarts and a bolder presentation style.

Despite Graham and Wagner's well-drawn characters, this is clearly Robert Downey Jr.'s show and the troubled actor's performance is a tour de force. When the women confront him, rubbing his nose in the hackneyed come-on lines he used on both of them ("I never experienced real love before I met you," " You own my dick", etc.) Downey goes into one of the most dazzling song and dances ever recorded on film. Panicked, he emits a stream of pathetic excuses and wild rationalizations. He tries diversionary tactics, even feigning a suicide to remind the girls of how much they need him. Desperate, he attempts to turn the tables, claiming that the women's premeditated confrontation was far more cruel than anything he did in the name of love.

The watershed scene comes as Downey confronts himself in the bathroom mirror, sobbing "When are you going to shape up?" along with a stream of invectives. This is the moment when the line between actor and character dissolves and we find ourselves looking squarely at Robert Downey Jr., the drug-addict. While the story addresses sexual duplicity, the subtext actually deals with the duplicity of an addict who spent years saying whatever was necessary to convince those trying to help him that their efforts were working, when in fact, his self-destructive behaviors continued to spiral out of control. This is Robert Downey Jr. naked, in front of the unflinching eye of the camera, finally dropping all the bullshit and facing his personal demons at long last.

Or is it? Midway through the story, one of the women asks Downey's character "Do you have any feelings, or do you just play Hamlet all the time and pretend to have feelings?" The same question applies to Downey himself. Is he really experiencing a crucial moment of clarity in the film, or is he just pretending to have the breakthrough he knew was expected of him?

There's no way of knowing whether what we saw was real, pretend, or a little of both. As of this writing, Downey has completed his jail term and moved to a drug rehabilitation facility. It's notable that he spent an evening away from the center to attend the premier of this film.

Robert Downey Jr. is an extraordinarily gifted actor and, despite a contrived storyline and shaky dialogue, "Two Girls and a Guy" is a striking film, thanks primarily to his inspired performance. Robert Downey Jr. is also an addict, and as Neil Young wrote, "every junkie is a setting sun." Hopefully, Downey, like so very many others, will find the inspiration to change his life before nightfall.

Copyright 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott

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