Two Girls & a Guy has a lot more to offer than the titillating name suggests, while still managing to be stimulating for all those reasons too (although it's NC-17 rating says MUCH more about our repressive culture than it does about the film, which is not graphic in the least). Filmmaker James Toback has built an impressive resume of raw, talky pictures (often with extensive improvised scenes) and the occasional documentary (including the recently released Tyson documentary which is excellent). Here we have a mere 3 characters (well there are technically 6 but the brief interactions with passerby on the street in the beginning don't count, although the scene is still very funny).
We meet Carla (Heather Graham, still severely lacking in dramatic range of any kind here but incredibly sexy as usual and certainly keeping pace with her two co-stars) and Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner, who is cute as a button both here and in the only other film I've seen her in Lost Highway, in both cases as a kick-around girlfriend in the shadow of the bombshell blonde) as they are standing outside a NY apartment building, trying to stay warm while waiting for their respective friends to arrive. They get to talking and it quickly becomes clear that they are in fact both waiting for the same person, Blake (Robert Downey Jr in what may very well be my favorite performance of his ever, right along with Wayne Gale in Natural Born Killers). Blake, you see, has been playing junior bigamist with these two young women and the chickens have indeed come home to roost. They smash a window and break into his apartment while hatching a scheme to wait for him in secret and confront him for his mischief. From a plot standpoint we needn't go much further, they do indeed confront him (first one...then the other, appearing out of nowhere). The beauty, as usual, is in the details. More specifically, Downey here has created one of the most memorably charming cads to ever grace the silver screen. He backpedals like an Olympic athlete trying to come up with lies on top of lies while still coming out looking clean and not ruining his chances with either girl. There are hints of deep psychological wounds in Downey who has weird traumatic issues with his sick mother (showing a tender side) while being so callous and emotionally blasé toward these two women, both of whom he also claims to love.
You see, the central conceit that he’s running with is that while he lied to them both that they were the only one, he was 100% honest in terms of telling them both that he loved them. The lengths he goes to re-gain the upper hand (including briefly faking his own death) are incredible and the web of lies ensnares you, the viewer, as well. You can't help but root for him in all his sleazy glory. That's because Robert Downey Jr is a very likeable and charismatic guy and I think this role is perhaps much closer to the real Downey than anything else he's been involved in. This is a guy who has a well documented history of self destructive behavior. Bouncing in and out of jail and rehab and famously telling a judge “It's like I have a loaded gun in my mouth and my finger's on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gunmetal". Blake the character (also an actor/performer) is extremely manipulative and wields his looks and talent like a weapon. Traits that it's easy to assume the real Downey used during his ascent in Hollywood where he was struggling to be a functional drug addict.
To the extent that actors reveal their true selves to us through their work, you can see how Downey would be an easy guy to love. He just seems to light up the room when he's in it and a guy like that can easily find himself surrounded by enablers who want to get a piece of that golden talent at the expense of his health, or those who love him and fear for his well being but are easily swayed by the veneer he presents that everything is okay. Toback, as I started to explain before, is not much of a stickler for scripts. Much like the improv comedies of Christopher Guest, or Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Toback often comes to his cast with character arcs and scene outlines and lets them fill in the blanks. This then adds an almost voyeuristic quality to Two Girls and a Guy since we know about Downey's sordid past of extreme drug abuse, prison time, alienation of his friends and family and nearly destroying his career in the process (remember that before Iron Man was the biggest movie of the summer of 2008, Downey was considered an extremely risky choice to lead any Hollywood film, let alone a franchise). In moments of self reflection where he's looking in the mirror and distorting his face into horrifying masks acknowledging his own puppet like masquerade, I feel like we are glimpsing into the man's soul as he quietly performs mea culpa on the set of this movie.
Even though it's not based on a play, that's how Toback stages the film in many respects. As I mentioned in the prior piece on The Shape of Things, a movie that can be this engaging and memorable while taking place in a single day, in a single location, is an impressive feat and one that I particularly enjoy and admire. Even the use of music in the film is simple yet perfect for the material. With a few minor exceptions, the main melody that is repeated is Downey himself performing Jackie Wilson’s classic "You Don't Know Me" (a lyrically brilliant choice). It's got a tragicomic vibe to it here and you can see that Downey knows it too. Toback had worked with Downey before in his closest thing to a hit, 1987’s The Pick Up Artist with Molly Ringwald, I did rent this once but it was ages ago and I don't really remember it. My point is that he clearly saw the same thing I did when I first saw Chaplin back in 1992; That Robert Downey Jr. is an easy guy to root for (both on screen and with his personal trials and tribulations). He’s one of those captivating actors whose mere presence in a scene brings a dynamic energy to the proceedings. I think that this and Natural Born Killers may end up being the best work he ever did. I know this is kind of a nasty or selfish thing to say but I often feel that sobriety in artists, while a welcome alternative to overdose I suppose, does seem to dull the edge a bit (Trent Reznor anyone??) and while I'm very happy to see him back on the A-list, I don't know that we'll ever see him do better work (although his supporting role in Zodiac gave me real hope that he could). Having said that, Downey going through the motions in a movie is 1,000,000% more interesting than Robert Pattinson faking humility and sparkling in the sun.
It's also a smart little relationship movie. Challenging the ideas of monogamy, the definition of love and simultaneously damning and applauding the behavior of its leads. The women also end up being much more 3 dimensional than just "women scorned". It quickly turns from them being a team out to teach him a lesson to them subtly vying for his attention and affection and turning it into a contest to see which “lucky lady” gets to keep being the girlfriend. More importantly they are the driving force behind some of the nicer messages of the film, such as the fact that loyalty, trust and even forgiveness will always be the true hallmark of a successful relationship. It’s a good one to watch with a girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse or a group of friends and talk about it afterwards (if you’re into that sort of thing). And, of course, for those of you who have recently re-discovered Downey (or discovered him for the first time) and for those, like me, who have never forgotten the mark left by his many excellent performances, you will find much to love in this little character study. Grade: B+