Courtesy Photo
84 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, April 24, 1998
Written & directed by James Toback

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Heather Graham & Natasha Gregson Wagner

This film is on the Best of 1998 list.
Sexually charged roundelay features fantastic performances

If Robert Downey, Jr. never cleans up his act and spends six months out of every year in jail or drug rehab for the rest of his life, it would be a shame. But I would still go see any movie the guy makes between trips to the big house, because he is arguably the most under-appreciated actor of his generation.

Time and again in films like "Chaplin," "Restoration" and "One Night Stand," he has proven an amazing, cathartic ability to inhabit a character in thought and action. At his best, the man doesn't act -- he becomes.

But as long as he lives -- and admittedly that might not be long at the rate he's going -- he may never top his performance in "Two Girls and a Guy."

A thrown-together three-character study in duplicity, this love triangle was penned by writer and director James Toback ("Bugsy," "The Pick-Up Artist") expressly for Downey to help him get back on track after one of his stints in rehab, and it is (please pardon the cliche) his tour de force.

Downey plays an actor returning from a trip to his sweet Manhattan loft to find his two girlfriends (Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner), laying in wait to confront him. It seems they had not known about each other until they both showed up to welcome him home, and our boy is in very hot water.

Largely improvised, the sexually charged roundelay that follows is so remarkably honest that it feels like you're watching it live. Obviously filmed with cameras rolling for sometimes 10 minutes at a take, and often with shots swinging between actors as they argue, Toback must have been positively giddy watching this film evolve before his lens.

As strikingly dissimilar girls, Graham ("Boogie Nights") and Wagner (Natalie Wood's daughter) play their characters' jealousies close to the vest, opting to try tag-teaming the conniving Downey into guilty confessions.

Wagner is a combative sprite with an ironic sense of humor, who is would probably rather knock his block off and be done with it. But Graham, passionate but reserved, lends a calm to the romantic hostilities.

Downey's two-timer is such a successful louse that, after the initial stuttering shock of being caught, he immediately begins prey on the weaknesses he know to exist within each girlfriend. He's pretty sure he can salvage at least one of the relationships, if not both.

He lets us see the wheels spin in his character's head. At first he lies poorly, swearing he fell in love with them both at the same time. But even early on he still has the presence of mind to glance slyly at a picture frame where he keeps both girls' photos to see which one is facing out.

Before long he has arranged to talk to them each in private, turning on the conquering charisma with such precision that he even gets one girl out of her dress while the other one is just outside the door.

However, these girls are not victims. After a little booze and some girl talk, during which they discover he'd been using his sickly mother as a front for seeing them both, they turn the tables. Backed into the corner of a mirrored bathroom (signifying his two faces and his double-standards), they tell him they have both cheated on him, as well. Is he being duped? He doesn't know, but he reacts furiously all the same.

Then Wagner implies that had he just been truthful, the two girls might have been open to a three-way tryst, and again we watch Downey's mind race: His better judgment (Are they toying with me?) fighting his libido (Man, that would be awesome!).

"Two Girls and a Guy" was both scripted and shot in a matter of days on a minuscule budget of $1 million, and as such it has its share of flaws. It is painfully obvious that some of the dialogue was re-recorded, for instance. Sometimes one or both of the girls' motives are unclear. And the fabulous loft the film was shot in is way, way out of the Downey character's price range.

But none of its faults matter much up against the fact that this is a funny, sexy, raw and sincere movie driven entirely by conversation.

In a movie like this, actors can't help but shine, especially when they're part of the creative process. While Toback indulges his star a bit, allowing him to break into "Hamlet" in one scene and lecture himself in a mirror in another, Downey, Graham and Wagner are so natural they take the plot where it leads their characters' hearts. The result is emotional authenticity that is beyond mere performance. It's real.

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