Promiscuous prudes

James Toback's startling new film dives into the messy mindlessness of sex

Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner have their own distinctive performing styles, and it takes a while for them to mesh. At first, bantering back and forth in the loft, the girls are so cadenced and lickety-split that the effect is almost like vintage screwball comedy. Carla looks at Lou with low-key disbelief--can this really be her competition? But then the film settles down, and we begin to see the emotional shifts in the performances. Carla is won over by Lou's poignant, jitterbug spunk, and Lou is dazzled by Carla's prettiness. You get the feeling she's honored to be part of the team--Blake's team.

Toback's scenario, for all its faux feminist mea culpas, is still a classic male fantasy. Blake is the guy with two girls. He is, however, enough of a narcissist to be repelled by the idea of a threesome. (Blake all by himself is practically a threesome.) He likes his women one at a time--he's a traditionalist at heart. But he's still enthralled by what the girls do to him. Even though he rants and moans about it, he loves the fact that he can't figure out what Carla and Lou will do next. In the midst of his own ramblings he lets them ramble on, knowing they'll trip themselves up and provide him with an opening. For Blake, women are an endless source of maddening happenstance. He loves them because they confirm his own screw-loose take on the world.

Toback doesn't attempt to "distance" himself from his erotic obsessions but, unlike in some of his other work, the obsessions here don't take over. Two Girls and a Guy is the work of an obsessive who has developed a light touch--though some of his more outright themes and pronouncements can be heavy-going. Blake is given a mother fixation that seems to be in the movie in order to set up a deep and tragic finale. (It's unconvincing.) I could also have done without the poster of Jules and Jim in Blake's loft--the invited comparison with Truffaut's film does not exactly work in Toback's favor.

Still, not many films these days attempt to root around in unpleasantries the way this one does. Toback doesn't soothe out his characters' ruffles. When Carla accuses Blake of not having any "real" feelings, she's right. But she's also wrong. Just because he's an actor doesn't mean he's an empty vessel. When he recites a soliloquy from Hamlet, he's astonishing, and at that moment you don't care what--or whom--he had to go through in order to be that good. Toback gets at the essential amorality at the core of being an artist. This may be why Downey, who made this film in between bouts in rehab, has such resonance in his role. Blake may be a coddled prince, but he's no poseur. For all his scams, he does have real feelings. He comes on like a con artist, but he has the soul of an authentic one. Like it or not.

Two Girls and a Guy.
Directed and written by James Toback. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Heather Graham, and Natasha Gregson Wagner. Opens Friday.

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