A lively, if slender, perpetuation of the battle between the sexes on a modern battleground, "Two Girls and a Guy" is the filmic equivalent of an intimate Off Broadway play.

A lively, if slender, perpetuation of the battle between the sexes on a modern battleground, “Two Girls and a Guy” is the filmic equivalent of an intimate Off Broadway play. Sparked by heated, raunchy and sometimes quite funny dialogue, and given aesthetic interest by its bold real-time format, James Toback’s one-set low-budgeter was reportedly shot in just 11 days and both benefits and suffers from its built-in physical and temporal restrictions. Critical reaction will no doubt run the gamut for this sexually frank, exploratory piece, with its B.O. fate hanging in the balance of whether the resulting controversy makes it a priority for young discriminating viewers or a turn-off, especially among women.

Often a gutsy, intelligent writer, Toback has yet to prove himself decisively as a director, and this, his first fictional effort behind the camera in a decade, shows his talents to be as variable as ever. Fresh, profane and bluntly insightful moments coexist almost inexplicably with interludes that come off as artificial, unconvincing or unfinished, resulting in a work that is as bracingly entertaining at times as it is unfulfilled at others.

Setup possesses the potential for a great sex farce. The two girls of the title, the lovely, almost doll-like Carla (Heather Graham) and the scrappy, more streetwise Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner), meet on the street outside a SoHo loft, each waiting for her boyfriend. It doesn’t take them long, however, to figure out that they are waiting for the same guy, Blake (Robert Downey Jr.), a young actor who has professed eternal and exclusive love to each of them but has actually been two-timing both for many months.

Instead of stomping off or going at each other, the young women decide to confront Blake with his dirty deed and make him try to explain his lies and hypocrisy. Breaking into his loft, they lie in wait as he returns from a trip to L.A., sharing their remarkably similar experiences with Blake in dialogue that is unfortunately directed in a stylized, rapid-fire manner that undercuts the loaded emotional content of the scene.

A highly theatrical, verbally quicksilver and ethically slippery character, Blake is surprised, first by Carla, then by Lou, and becomes discombobulated as the girls gang up on him, hurling angry and righteous accusations that he can scarcely deny. His declarations of love for each of them flung back in his face, he weakly declares that he actually does love both women, then retreats to the bathroom, where he pretends to shoot himself, complete with stage blood.

Through it all, the girls buy none of Blake’s feeble explanations for his selfish, duplicitous behavior, but are nonetheless intrigued enough by his verbal dexterity and outrageously imaginative claims that they stick around to hear more.

In a private heart-to-heart with himself, Blake balefully regards his visage in the bathroom mirror and tells himself that it’s “your last chance to get your shit together,” a scene that will have double reverberations for those mindful of Downey’s widely publicized personal problems in the months before this film was shot. But by the end of the drama’s clearly demarcated first act, one is left with the distinct impression that Blake is a joker to the depths of his being, a game player and a habitual liar who will try on any pose for size.

Jumping ahead a bit in time, the gals are still there, but the dynamics have subtly transformed, with Blake insisting that he was confused by falling in love for the first time (with both of them simultaneously) but also preoccupied with the health of his mother, whom he phones incessantly.

At one point, Carla unexpectedly takes Blake upstairs into a Japanese-style boudoir for a bout of quite hot and, at least for an American movie, unusual sex. The session is secretly observed by Lou, who first teases Blake by suggesting that he blew it by not pushing his two romances into a three-way arrangement (a poster for “Jules and Jim” hangs prominently on the wall), and later proposes to Carla that she come up and see her on her own sometime.

It doesn’t take too long for the three to start tentatively resolving the situation, but Toback ill-advisedly lays on some final-inning melodrama about the fate of Blake’s mother that seems arbitrary and makes the mood heavy in the wrong way. Abrupt ending catches the viewer short, and is unsatisfying.

Trying to take advantage of a loft that seems unusually spacious and well appointed for a supposedly struggling actor, Toback and lenser Barry Markowitz try to keep things varied visually by moving the action around to various corners of the room. But the film still feels rather stagebound, and one could imagine that the piece would have essentially the same impact if performed onstage.

The three principals are all magnetic and interesting to watch. Downey shifts into various emotional modes with dazzling speed and dexterity, Graham nicely registers that Carla may have considerations other than Blake’s fidelity at the top of her list of priorities, and Wagner intriguingly reveals how Lou also has other desires that would not be fulfilled in a long-term relationship with Blake. At the same time, none of the characters is fully rounded by any means, with the psychological insight into all of them narrowly channeled.

The single setting notwithstanding, pic’s sparkling look belies its tiny budget.

Two Girls and A Guy

Production

A Fox Searchlight release of an Edward R. Pressman Film production in association with Muse Prods. Produced by Edward R. Pressman, Chris Hanley. Executive producers, Michael Mailer, Daniel Bigel. Directed, written by James Toback.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Barry Markowitz; editor, Alan Oxman; music supervision, Barry Cole; production design, Kevin Thompson; set decoration, Alisa Grifo; sound, Brian Miksis, Itamar Ben Jacob; line producer, Gretchen McGowan; assistant director, John Gallagher; casting, Sheila Jaffe, Georgianne Walken. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, L.A., Aug. 20, 1997. (In Telluride, Toronto film festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Blake Allen - Robert Downey Jr. Carla - Heather Graham Lou - Natasha Gregson Wagner Tommy - Angel David Carol - Frederique Van Der Wal

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more