Two Girls and a Guy (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When considering a title like Two Girls and a Guy, one can be forgiven for expecting something a little risqué. (In fact, a friend of mine quipped, "I didn't think you reviewed movies like that.") Add to that the swirl of controversy regarding the film's brush with an NC-17 rating, and it's not unreasonable to anticipate more than a little flesh, and maybe a threesome or two. However, anyone who goes into Two Girls and a Guy with those expectations is going to be very disappointed. The movie is far from being a soft-core sex-fest. In fact, this is really just a three-character play featuring absolutely no nudity.

It also features almost no story. Two women, Carla (Heather Graham) and Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner), discover that their boyfriend, Blake (Robert Downey Jr.), has been cheating on each of them with the other. He spends three days a week with Carla and three days a week with Lou, then, on the seventh day, he rests. So they break into his apartment and wait for him to return from a trip. Instead of tying him up and torturing him, they talk to him, argue with him, and wait around while he makes phone calls to his apparently-sick mother. One of them then has sex with him while the other listens at the door. Later, it's true confessions, and it turns out that faithfulness in this twisted triangle is a rare commodity.

Two Girls and a Guy survives on acting and dialogue alone. A fair amount of the film, especially Downey's solo sequences, appears to have been improvised, and this lends an air of unpredictability to the proceedings. All three characters are well-drawn, ably-portrayed, and strangely appealing (even the cad, Blake). They are creations of the moment, however, with only sketchy histories and little depth. Who are they outside the confines of Blake's apartment? We never learn that. About all we know about the two girls is that Carla, the blonde, is beautiful, clever, and has a good heart, while Lou, the redhead, is cute, streetwise, and self-sufficient. Blake is a compulsive liar who is obsessed with his mother's health. His favorite song is, not surprisingly, "You Don't Know Me."

To the best of my knowledge, Two Girls and a Guy was never produced on stage, but it could have been. The setting is limited to a few rooms in an apartment. The "action" is 90% talking, and, as with any movie of this sort, the quality of the acting is crucial. All three leads are up to the task, which occasionally requires them to perform in lengthy, unbroken, dialogue-laden scenes. Heather Graham, whose recent roles in Boogie Nights and Lost in Space have increased her exposure, is excellent as the reserved Carla. Likewise, Natasha Gregson Wagner (the daughter of Natalie Wood and stepdaughter of Robert Wagner, for anyone who's interested) is effective as the impetuous, energetic Lou. Both actresses use body language and facial expressions to compliment what they say.

Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr. is stupendous as Blake. His talent is on display here -- he can sing, dance, and act. He can be funny and tragic. Also, he appears to be slipping into the Woody Allen mode of bringing aspects of his off-screen persona into his parts. In Hugo Pool, his own father cast him as a stoned, deranged egomaniac. Here, there's a scene where he whispers the following lines to a mirror: "Why do you do this? Is this how you want to live the rest of your life?" It's impossible not to see this short monologue as self-referential.

So why the almost-NC-17 (which was eventually demoted to an R after director James Toback re-edited the offending scene umpteen times)? Penetration? Gynecological close-ups? Nope. It's because the members of the MPAA have vivid imaginations. They interpreted a certain scene to represent something that no one under 18 should be exposed to. (Personally, I thought the girl was just looking for a spot on the guy's underpants, and that he then kindly returned the favor.) Never mind that it's not as unsettling as watching several hundred dead bodies bob around in the water like corks (Titanic; rated PG-13) or as disturbing as viewing people getting disemboweled, decapitated, and mutilated by hooks, knives, and other sharp objects (any horror movie; rated R). Most curious of all, not only is the sex scene in Two Girls and a Guy unrevealing, but it's not even especially erotic.

For the most part, Two Girls and a Guy is lightly entertaining if you enjoy this sort of movie -- great performances, good dialogue, and a minimal plot. It's more of a comedy than a drama, although the final fifteen minutes feature a peculiar, unwelcome change in tone. With the exception of a strangely philosophical mediation on monogamy, the film's dialogue is surprisingly shallow. Most movies like this (such as The Designated Mourner) spend lengthy stretches on deep issues. Not so here, where Toback keeps the material accessible. All-in-all, Two Girls and a Guy is a has its share of enjoyable moments, but there aren't enough of them to fill up the 84-minute running time.

Two Girls and a Guy (United States, 1997)

Director: James Toback
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Heather Graham, Natasha Gregson Wagner
Screenplay: James Toback
Cinematography: Barry Markowitz
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:24
U.S. Release Date: 1998-04-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1