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'Two Girls': Triple Play

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 1998

  Movie Critic


 
Movie Scene
Robert Downey Jr., Heather Graham (right) and Natasha Wagner are "Two Girls and a Guy." (Fox Searchlight)

Director:
James Toback
Cast:
Robert Downey Jr.;
Heather Graham;
Natasha Wagner;
Angel David;
Frederique Van Der Wal
Running Time:
1 hour, 25 minutes
R
For profanity, lengthy discusssion of sexuality and scenes of blood
For the hour-and-a-half duration of "Two Girls and a Guy," writer and director James Toback's devilishly original take on modern romance, you become a fly on the wall during a particularly nasty three-way argument.

Lucky fly.

By turns raunchy, touching and funny, "Two Girls" affords the viewer that guiltiest of passive pleasures-that of the voyeur. But unlike mere Peeping-Tomism, the rewards of which are only of a prurient nature, you'll likely come away from this astonishing encounter between the three corners of a lovers' triangle not just amused but enlightened about such not-so-simple issues as fidelity, betrayal, lust, possessiveness, honesty and forgiveness.

At the very least, you'll be grateful you're not in Blake Allen's shoes.

Blake (a charmingly caddish Robert Downey Jr.) is what is commonly known in the parlance of passion as a dog-he is sleeping with two women and lying to both of them. He has one little problem in that the two girlfriends have just introduced themselves to each other outside his apartment, thereby revealing his canine status. Let the games begin!

Toback's modest but deep film unfolds like an old-fashioned stage play, obeying the three classic dramatic unities of time, space and action. With the exception of a couple of walk-ons who introduce the film, there are only three characters: the two-timing Blake; Girlfriend No. 1 (Heather Graham as the smart, sophisticated Carla) and Girlfriend No. 2 (Natasha Gregson Wagner as the voluble, streetwise Lou). And the confrontation between the cheated on and the cheat takes place over the course of a single afternoon in Blake's humongous and photogenic downtown Manhattan loft.

Incidentally, Toback scored immediate points with me by explaining-for once-how a struggling actor could afford such an obviously expensive apartment in New York. (It's inherited.) And, in a winking allusion for the cognoscenti, one wall is decorated with a poster for this film's cinematic progenitor, "Jules and Jim," Francois Truffaut's ground-breaking 1962 meditation on the menage a trois.

Downey has never been better as the flawed, philandering Blake. Described by Lou as "irresistible," he does exude palpable magnetism, even when his behavior is exposed for its most reprehensible. A saving grace of the film is that it does not indulge in convenient and tiresome male-bashing. Yes, Blake has done wrong, but over the course of the day, we come to realize that he is not the only one guilty of moral compromise and hypocrisy. The many subtle but seismic ground shifts that occur in the personal dynamics between Blake, Lou and Carla-as they bond, un-bond and re-bond in startling configurations-are what keep this fascinating and fresh story from becoming a stagy set piece. And the organic-sounding dialogue, part scripted, part improvised, never strikes a false or forced note.

The young actresses Graham and Wagner here create two characters who feel whole, distinct and weighty. Neither allows herself to settle into that most overdone of caricatures, the scorned woman, bent on punishment. After anger, revenge and moping are tried on and discarded, something far more grown-up-and honest-sets in: the desire to understand.

That's the real point that Toback's audacious film effectively pounds home-that only when the veneer of civility and its attendant white lies are stripped away is true insight possible.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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