Movie Review: Two Girls and a Guy

© 1998 Dan Heller

Quick Review: Missable character drama whose plot deteriorates as the characters eventually fizzle into random expressions of the director's personal conflicts about sex.

Synopsis: Two girls, Carla and Lou meet on the street outside a loft waiting for their boyfriends. In a short time, they find out that they're waiting for the same guy - young actor Blake, who said that "he loves only her" to both of them, but was actually leading double life for ten months already. Angry, they break into his loft, and when he returns, a round of accusations and explanations begins.

Review: I first saw this movie last October at the Mill Valley Film Festival. It was presented by the director, James Toback, who had written and directed other movies such as Bugsy (writer), The Big Bang, The Pickup Artist, and others. What I found most interesting about this event was not the movie, which wasn't that great, but hearing a director talk about his own work, a self-financed ($1M) effort, written to get a few things off his chest, and to do a favor for his old friend, Robert Downy Jr.

The premise is revealed in the first scene, where the two girls realize the their respective "boyfriend" is one and the same person. After they break into his apartment, they commiserate with one another, trying to make sense of it all (and developing their characters for us), comparing notes, and do more nauseum. When Blake (Robert Downy Jr.) gets home, he is confronted, not by both women, but only one. After some questioning, where his answers are clearly lies getting him into deeper and deeper trouble, the other comes out from hiding, and the real fireworks begin.

The premise had me in great anticipation of deep philosophical conjecture on the relationships between men and women, the differences between them, and the ways that we eventually overcome them (despite such extraordinary circumstances) and move on. Why do we lie in a relationship? What do we want out of a relationship that makes us change our minds, even vascillate between two seemingly contradictory ends? How do we live with ourselves and the ones we love when we are so torn within ourselves about our own motives? Hmmm... Never mind all that. Let's have sex.

This is essentially the attitude of the movie, of all the characters, and of the director, it seems. Life's hard, the answers are even harder, and thinking about it makes your head spin. So, instead of contemplating this, let's just present the conflict, and then ignore it.

The entire movie takes place within Blake's apartment (a really cool New York City loft that's apparently still for sale in the upper 23rd St. design center district). Robert Downy Jr. steals the movie by a long shot, but that's not surprising, since the movie was written with him in mind. (Toback and Downy are best of friends, and Toback got him work playing in this movie after a legal episode ended up with him in jail.) Downy's acting skills are definitely admirable, and I hope this movie gets him better work in the future. While this movie helps him shine, he couldn't save it. The script, and thus, the director, had other things in mind.

The other two actresses were less than noteworthy. Heather Graham, who's been doing quite well for herself (Boogie Nights, Lost in Space, and 30 other film and TV credits behind her), has done much better in previous work; and Natasha Wagner (also with a long line of film and TV gigs) has also seen better times. But, both were cursed by a misdirected script with no real goal in mind. The plot had no concrete objective, no story to tell, no lesson to learn, and philosophy to pontificate to a captured audience. With the exception of Downy, the acting, dialog and direction seemed so amateurish, you'd think you were watching a film student's first attempt behind the camera. The speech was rushed, the intonations and inflections were implausible, and the language was uncharacteristic of the people they were supposed to be portraying. In one scene, during a pause from heated argument, the actors almost robotically move to a confined space of the apartment, and Downy and Graham end up having pretty heated sex (which had to be edited down, apparently, to bring it back to an NC-17 rating). Wagner sits outside the door and listened with a pensive look on her face. What's she thinking, you ask? Nothing, as it turns out.

At every revelation of a new fact, or twist in the plot line, you'd think it'd explain everything, the stuff that isn't making sense, and that sooner or later, there would be some logic to it all. What are these characters thinking? Eventually, we learn that all of them are lying, and it becomes a test to see who's lying the most. The secrets revealed compels you to scream out, "What the hell were you complaining about him for!?"

So, what went wrong? Why did it all happen that way? After the movie was over, Toback stood on the stage and took questions from the audience, who seemed too star struck to ask him anything challenging. "What was it like to work with Robert Downy Jr.?" "What did you cut out of the sex scenes?" Only one question sparked an interesting response, because it revealed more about the director himself: he's pissed about something, and a little more than obsessed with the paradox that sex has played in his life.

Now, that could explain a few things, and it could have presented an interesting plot line. Woody Allen does this in every movie. But, Toback is not so contemplative. For example, the sex scene was spontaneous. It was never originally in the script; he had the idea during the shoot because, as he tells it, it solved the problem of how to transition from the argument scene to the "let's move forward" scene. "Everyone had fun," he proudly exclaims. "Originally, everyone thought it was a good idea, but Wager declined to do a three-some, and counter-offered with 'sitting outside the door and listenng to them, looking like I'm thinking about something.'" Well, that answers that question: no wonder none of it made sense. Sounds like it fit in well with the intricate plot and the philosophical messages that the director had in mind, huh?

Little did he know it, but Toback eventually revealed that half the movie was almost entirely impromptu, and it shows. He feels strongly that sex is a strong motivator in people's lives, and that conflict inspires sexual arousal, which causes people to do strange and inconsistent things. That's all he feels he needed to accomplish, and he felt the scenes did that. for me, however, respectable movie making is different: you're supposed to delve into characters and develop them into something people can identify with, lead a plot line that has some sensibility, or even have some resolution to the conflicts that are introduced. It's even reasonable to say there is no resolution, but you need to convince the audience of that, as Woody Allen does, not just proclaim it to be, as Toback does here.

My question to Toback was simple, "Did you feel you were portraying today's culture, or do you feel that the themes you presented are timeless?" He felt they were timeless, and his movie could have taken place in any culture at any time. Is he really that out of touch, or has his life given him the misimpression that everyone is like the sexually and socially dysfunctional people we saw on the screen? "Everyone's like this," he ends, "and it's just a matter of digging deep enough inside them to find that out. Sometimes, it takes such a crisis [like the one in the movie] to draw that out in us."

Well, call me a weirdo, but no one I know could carry on relationships, much less arguments, the way these people did in his movie.

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