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