Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Two Girls and One Very Memorable Guy

For the past couple of weeks I have been looking at James Toback's EXPOSED at my Nastassja Kinski blog. My posts about it have been making me think on several of his other films and I thought I would write a bit on one that premiered ten years ago this month.
TWO GIRLS AND A GUY (1997) is perhaps the ultimate James Toback film. It isn't his best, FINGERS (1978) holds that position and I am not even sure it his second best as his more recent WHEN WILL I BE LOVED (2004) is a searing and important work.
Still no film projects Toback's sexual and spiritual politics better than TWO GIRLS AND A GUY and it remains one of the nineties most interesting if problematic features.

"I have lied about nothing except sexual fidelity."
-Blake Allen, TWO GIRLS AND A GUY-

TWO GIRLS AND A GUY tells a pretty simple story. The two girls of the title, Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner, meet outside of a locked apartment where they are each awaiting for their boyfriends to return from a trip. They quickly find out that their boyfriends are actually the same guy, self obsessed actor Blake Allen (Robert Downey Jr. in a career best performance) and they break into his apartment and wait to confront him on his infidelity. He returns and attempts to make them understand his lies and deceits.
While TWO GIRLS AND A GUY takes place almost entirely in Downey's apartment, it never feels overly stagy which is quite a remarkable feet on Toback's part. His direction of the film is very assured and unfussy. The problem with TWO GIRLS AND A GUY is mostly in Toback's script which is a at times brilliant but often feels unapproachable and ultimately unrealistic.

As kinetic and convincing Robert Downey Jr. is in the part of the ego-maniacal Blake Allen, there is never a moment in the film where I truly believe that the two girls not only come to understand his motivations for cheating on them but also come to accept them. TWO GIRLS AND A GUY's script is maybe too confessional and has perhaps one too many excuses. Since Toback often describes his work as autobiographical, TWO GIRLS AND A GUY often feels too one-sided. I never really feel I come to understand the two girls of the title, and at times I don't buy them as fully rounded and developed characters. It is easy for Blake to play and sing YOU DON'T KNOW ME in the hopes that it somehow explains away a life of lies and deceit, but ultimately I can never get past the fact that this guy has been caught in something horrendous and the film gives him too much of an easy route out.
Toback's other best films don't offer simple solutions. There isn't an easy explainable way out for Keitel in FINGERS or Kinski in EXPOSED. His scripts for those films were unapologetic in how much they put their lead characters through. TWO GIRLS AND A GUY is different, it feels too easy. I can buy perhaps the forgiveness and sympathy the two come to have for Blake, but I can't accept the understanding and condoning.
At the center of Toback's film is Downey's performance. It is a raging, arrogant and overwhelming performance that he hasn't equaled since. Without Downey, Toback's script would have completely fallen apart but Downey is so good in this role that you almost accept the impossible thing Toback is asking you to.
The casting of the two girls is a little more questionable. Natasha Gregson Wagner, one of Natalie Wood's daughters, is a good actress but I think Toback's film was a little much for her at this point in her career. While she had many films under her belt, she had never been in anything quite as heavy and intense as this film. It also hurts that Toback's script asks her character to go through an arc that would probably never happen. It isn't a bad performance but her inexperience shows, perhaps that is what Toback was going for but it doesn't entirely work as he hasn't given the character enough life.

Heather Graham is more of a complicated issue. An often maligned actress, Graham is capable of doing fine work, as anyone who has seen DRUGSTORE COWBOY or BOOGIE NIGHTS can attest to. The problem with her here is that she comes across as so strong at the beginning, that I can't give into her motivations towards the end. Again, I blame this more on Toback's script than I do Graham. The girls in the film just don't have the life and draw that Downey does and it makes the work falter.
The film does has some of the most memorable moments in Toback's canon. A startling scene with Downey falling apart in front of a mirror, the ferociously moving sex scene between him and Graham and the final shot of the film that is one of the most memorable of the nineties. There is a lot to love in TWO GIRLS AND A GUY even if it is far from a perfect film.
I saw TWO GIRLS AND A GUY in Lousiville during the early spring of 1998 in its original NC17 cut. I was, with some reservations, really impressed with it. It is a film I like revisiting, although I find that reviewing just add to my frustrations that the film could have been even more than it finally is. It is an interesting film that points out that we all have little, and at times dangerous, acts we play with people. It reminds me that the song, YOU DON'T KNOW ME, that repeats throughout the film is true for anybody who lives and loves. It is something Toback has been reminding us of for more than thirty years now in his always remarkable, and sometimes frustrating, career.


JRChase said...

Thanks for the tip about TGnaG. I'll rent it if I can find it. D.Jr. in fun to see in action - even in court. I just saw him playing another boozer-louse in Zodiak. I haven't seen HG in anything yet.

Mr. Peel said...

It's been a long time since I've seen Two Girls and a Guy so I can't really comment on it, but I can easily recommend Toback's yearlong diary of 1994 which was published in Projections 4, one of that Faber & Faber series of books that was published in the nineties. A very honest confessional, he talks about the state of his career at the time as he deals with friends and colleagues ranging from Warren Beatty to Leonardo DiCaprio. Truthfully, I found it more engrossing than some of his films.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks jrchase...I really liked Downey's work in Zodiac, I thought it was his best performance since his best work in the nineties...

Thanks for the tip on the Projections 4 book Mr. Peel. The only one I have is the one Mike Figgis put together and it is really fascinating....

thanks to you both

Joe Valdez said...

Your pedigree continues to knock me out, Jeremy. I have never seen anything directed by James Toback. Your review mentioned this film as being "one sided" and I think that may be a synonym of the career he created for himself. But now you have me curious to check out the film. Anything with Downey is worth the time.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Joe for the nice words...Toback is an interesting guy. He has more below average films than great ones but Fingers, Exposed and When Will I Be Loved are really pretty extraordinary in my always thanks for the comments