I'd always wondered what was fueling Robert Downey Jr.'s talent. I knew that, whatever it was, it had to be high-octane. In every movie I've ever seen him in, Downey has been at least one car-length ahead of the other actors, delivering his lines in a furious flurry of spontaneous combustion. This guy would have been great in the wisecracking screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s. Instead, he was plopped down in the '80s, where "crack" referred to cocaine. A founding member of the Brat Pack, Downey was the only true swinger among those Rat Pack wannabes, the only one who swung both on and off the screen. Talking a mile a minute, he imbued his performances with the manic energy of a free-basing high, and with the give-me-all-your-love-and-money false sincerity of an addict. He was an addict, it turns out. In fact, Downey claims he's been addicted to one drug or another since he was 8 years old--i.e., for 25 years. That's a lot of artistic fuel, but the actor appeared to have finally run out of gas on June 23, 1996, when he was arrested for possession of heroin, crack cocaine and a .357 Magnum. After violating his probation, Downey spent three months in a Los Angeles jail, and those of us who'd been following his career wondered what he would be like upon his release. Stir crazy? Scared straight? Had he exorcised his demons? Or exercised them? A clue came when Downey signed on to make a movie with James Toback, who'd directed him in 1987's The Pick-Up Artist. Toback is, if anything, even more out of control than Downey--a compulsive gambler and a womanizer who, though he looks like a schlub, has often put his good friend Warren Beatty to shame. The thing is, Toback has built his career, such as it is, around his obsessions. He wrote The Gambler. He wrote and directed The Pick-Up Artist. And now he's written and directed Two Girls and a Guy, a self-described "unromantic comedy" about what happens when a pick-up artist goes for double or nothing. Given its origins (Toback started writing it when he saw the handcuffed Downey on TV), the movie might have been a maudlin exercise in Hollywood Babylon exploitation. Instead, it's a screwball tragedy about the way we live and love these days--the lies we tell each other and the lies we tell ourselves. It's also one of the most scathingly enjoyable movies I've seen in years--the first movie I've ever seen that captures the reckless push-pull of a couple trying to work out their differences. What hurtles Two Girls and a Guy into the realm of comedy is that there are two couples, or at least two girlfriends. Without telling either of them about the other, Downey's Blake has been divvying up his weeks between them--three nights to Carla (Heather Graham) and three nights to Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner). And on the seventh day, he rests, right? Not likely. A narcissistic actor, Blake is in rather constant need of an audience; and the face staring back at him in the mirror, though transcendentally diverting, is but a reflection of his desire to seduce the whole world. Then the shit hits the fan. Arriving back at his SoHo loft after a trip to L.A., Blake is met by Carla and Lou, who both wanted to surprise him. They've surprised him, all right, and half the fun of Two Girls and a Guy is watching Blake squirm and squiggle, like a worm on a fishhook. The other half of the fun is watching Blake, Carla and Lou sort out what's happened to them--i.e., what makes Blake tick. Alas, even Blake has trouble figuring that one out, despite several tête-à-têtes with the mirrors that seem to grace every wall of his apartment. Toback does have an explanation, however, and it's about as unsatisfying as Citizen Kane's Rosebud, which Orson Welles used to call "dollar-book Freud." Suffice it to say that, counting Blake's mother (whom we never see), the movie should be called THREE Girls and a Guy. Personally, I didn't want to know what made Blake tick; I just wanted to watch the gears and springs in action. Finally, Downey has made a movie about his inability to connect--the way he keeps slipping through our fingers, like a ball of mercury. And, paradox of paradoxes, this allows him to connect, if only with that part of us that fears we don't exist unless we're performing before an audience. It's the role of a lifetime and the performance of a lifetime--a courageous journey into Downey's own heart of darkness. In fact, there's a scene in Two Girls and a Guy that may go down in movie history as the most shocking display of both an actor's ego (Blake's as well as Downey's) and his essential lack of an ego. When it was over, I quietly picked my jaw up off the floor.
Working on the cheap, Toback sets the whole movie in (or just outside) Blake's apartment, and yet we never feel crammed in there, partly because the apartment itself is something out of Architectural Digest, and partly because the camerawork is so ingenious. Toback and cinematographer Barry Markowitz alternate long shots with extreme close-ups, so that we're always either too close or too far away from Blake--never the proper distance to get a decent fix on him. One could argue, of course, that the movie revolves too much around Blake and not enough around Carla and Lou. All I can say in Toback's defense is that the two girls get more than their share of revenge on their guy. And that Blake, the star of our show, wouldn't have had it any other way.