Two Girls and a Guy

(James Toback, USA, 199


There is a hilarious scene at the heart of James Toback's Two Girls and a Guy which sums up the writer-director's unique views on personality and behaviour.


Blake (Robert Downey Jr.) finds himself finally alone in his apartment, after being mercilessly interrogated by the two women in his life, Carla (Heather Graham) and Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner). They have recently discovered that Blake is intimately involved with both of them at once and lying furiously about it.


So Blake stares at himself long and hard in a mirror, splashing his face with water, swearing to "get it together" and tell the truth in future. Within moments, however, Blake is entranced by his own image and, not the first time in the movie, he begins pulling grotesque faces while singing a bent rendition of Jackie Wilson's "You Don't Know Me".


Personal identity is a bottomless pit in Toback's films (Fingers [1978], The Pick-Up Artist [1987]). The more that his characters try to strip themselves or each other naked to find an essence or truth the more they find only masks, ruses, postures. Although this gifted and underrated artist of the American cinema has often portrayed such a state of affairs tragically, here he turns it into comedy and the result is scintillating.


For his first directorial assignment in eight years, Toback puts together a modest, contained concept that milks the most out of very few ingredients. The action takes place almost entirely within Blake's apartment, with long stretches of three-hander talk occurring in real time.


But Two Girls and a Guy is a far cry from the static banality of, say, Rolf de Heer's similarly circumscribed The Quiet Room (1997). The rapid juxtaposition of moods, the steady exploration of all the nooks and crannies of the apartment, the precise alternation of heated and reflective moments all this turns the film into a captivating exercise.


Above all, it is the actors who sustain the energy and liveliness of the piece. From their first appearance beside each other in the street, Graham and Wagner are a delightful study in contrasts cool versus girlish, intellectual versus streetwise, lucid versus scatty. When Blake the supreme narcissist, always in the midst of some performance is added into the mix, the sparks really fly. Downey, whose naturally wild and crazy style is often excessive and misjudged on screen, here finds his perfect vehicle.


This is the funniest film I have seen in ages. Toback resists easy puns and punchlines, but the rapid-fire, neo-screwball interaction between his three, youthful characters builds to indelible highpoints of mutual exasperation, misunderstanding and game-playing. The shock ending is as daring as anything Toback has ever put on screen.


One perhaps needs to be a hard-core Toback devotee to really get the most out of Two Girls and a Guy. So much of the film gives a new, lighter spin to elements familiar from his past work such as the obsessive-compulsive nature of male sexuality, the incongruous presence of high culture within the lives of desperate opportunists, the figure of the actor-as-criminal, and the all-important place given to parental ties.


Toback has usually been unfortunately for him way ahead of the times. In Two Girls and a Guy, however, his lively, often perverse world-view meets popular cinema's renewed interest in the mixed-up lifestyles of contemporary youth. There could be no better guide through the dangerous liaisons of the modern world.


MORE Toback: Black and White

© Adrian Martin April 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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