Fox // 1998 // 84 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 5th, 2009
"I think words are not serving me well at all."
Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner, Lost Highway) is standing outside her boyfriend's apartment building. You see, her boyfriend has been out of town for a few weeks, and she wants to greet him when he gets home. Carla (Heather Graham, Bowfinger) is standing outside the same apartment building. Her boyfriend has been out of town for a while, too. She also wants to greet him when he gets home. Lou and Carla begin to chat casually, and suddenly they come to a startling realization: they're both in a relationship with the same guy. That guy is Blake (Robert Downey, Jr., Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), a struggling actor and clearly not an honest person. Up until this point, both Lou and Carla were very happy with Blake. He's funny, he's charming, he's kind, and he's thoughtful. What are two girls to do when they discover that their seemingly perfect guy is a philandering SOB? That's where Two Girls and a Guy starts, and the journey it takes from that point is an engaging and unpredictable ride.
The story of the film's creation is nearly as intriguing as the film itself. Writer/director James Toback had been friends with actor Robert Downey, Jr. for years. Both men had plenty of personal struggles that have been well-documented over the years. Toback was a shameless playboy and a compulsive gambler. Downey, of course, struggled with his addiction to drugs. In many ways, Two Girls and a Guy seems to be a form of therapy for both men, giving them the opportunity to explore and examine the temptations and struggles of their lives. Toback began work on the screenplay immediately after Downey was arrested in the mid-1990s, partially because he wanted to support his friend by giving him a leading role but largely because he felt that Downey was, "ready to play this part."
And what a part it is. Blake is a talented man, but absolutely incapable of really and truly accepting the truth. He manipulates and smooth-talks his way around every obstacle he can, but when he is confronted with the unshakeable, undeniable truth about who he is and what he has done, he nearly suffers a meltdown. He retreats into a victimized childishness, begging the women confronting him to just stop and leave him alone. There's a particularly striking moment when Lou and Carla are hurling angry insults at Blake, and Blake responds by turning his head and covering his face with his hands, as if attempting to protect himself from a live grenade. Only when he finds evidence that there has been some level of wrongdoing on the part of the women does he spring to life again. It's just enough to allow him to recreate the delusion that he is standing on some form of moral high ground.
The movie is just one step short of being a full-blown confession on the part of both Downey and Toback. Blake is just different enough from each of them that they can say, "Yeah, it's not really me." That may be a good thing, as far as the film is concerned. Perhaps the ability to detach themselves from the character just a little bit enabled them to create the character in a more fearless and honest manner. It's impossible to know whether the men were using this movie as a way of admitting the things they had always wanted to admit without really admitting them. Even so, it's not hard at all to see where the inspiration for this film came from when you take a look at the lives and circumstances of the pair at the time. The movie is bold and merciless in its portrayal of Blake, refusing to allow him any privacy or dignity (just watch the moment in which Downey desperately speaks to himself in a mirror, declaring, "Got to get it together!" over and over). Nonetheless, it is not heartless and lacking in compassion. This is not a film created with self-loathing, but with self-awareness.
Downey's pitch-perfect turn as Blake is undoubtedly the highlight of the film, but the actresses deserve credit for creating three-dimensional characters, too. That particularly applies to Natasha Gregson Wagner, who is the more enthusiastic and engaging of the pair. She seems carefree and innocent during her early scenes, but surprises us later when she reveals herself as the most progressively-minded character in the film. Heather Graham's Carla is a bit quieter, a bit prettier, a bit more conventional, a bit more intellectual. Blake claims to love both women deeply, but when confronted by both of him he seems to gravitate towards Carla. It's not that she's an immensely more appealing woman than Lou, just a bit more comfortable to be around due to her relative predictability. Well, seeming predictability. All of these characters have their secrets.
The film was created rather economically, as a script written in only four days was filmed in just 11. It's not a huge surprise, given that everything takes place within the confines of one apartment complex and features only three actors in significant roles. The direction is simple, allowing the characters to communicate with each other without permitting fancy visual flourishes to distract or get in the way. The film lives or dies on the strength of the performances and the screenplay. Fortunately, the movie succeeds with flying colors in both departments. I will note that some may find themselves slightly annoyed by Toback's mannered, stilted, Mamet-esque dialogue, but it's so well-delivered and intelligent that it's hard to imagine many having this problem.
This Blu-ray disc includes both the R-rated and NC-17 versions of the film. I reviewed the latter. Why is it rated NC-17? For "a scene of strong sexuality." Frankly, I'm quite surprised at the rating. Sure, it's a bit on the colorful, eyebrow-raising side, but there's no actual nudity or anything terribly shocking. Only a small trim was necessary to secure an R rating for the theatrical version of the film, but it shouldn't have been a problem. I've seen oodles of R-rated movies far more controversial in terms of content than this one.
This very stage-y film is hardly an ideal candidate for a Blu-ray release, so I can only think of two conceivable reasons that it's getting the hi-def treatment. First, it may be because of Robert Downey Jr.'s renewed popularity in recent years. Second, perhaps it's because the NC-17 version was not included on the DVD release and the folks at Fox figured that they might as well go ahead and use the Blu-ray format to make it available. Either way, it certainly doesn't look great on Blu-ray, as the transfer suffers from a number of problems. There are some scratches and flecks on occasion, there is some evidence of DNR, black crush is pretty severe at times, and flesh tones veer too heavily into orange/purple territory. Audio is also problematic, sometimes seeming a bit too distant and indistinct and other times becoming a tad too loud and distorted. Yes, it's better than the DVD release, but in contrast to other films of the '90s this transfers falls very short. Ported over from the original DVD is an audio commentary featuring Toback, Downey and Wagner, in addition to the theatrical trailer. New to this disc is a 20-minute interview with Toback that covers all of the major points touched on in the commentary. I was slightly disappointed that Toback never really addresses anything too personal, instead just focusing on the story's construction and the filmmaking process.
A minor gem of the 1990s, Two Girls and Guy is a film that deserves to be rediscovered. I think Downey is a considerably better actor in general now that he's sober, but this raw, broken performance remains one of his strongest roles. The Blu-ray release is technically worth an upgrade from the DVD, but that says far more about the DVD than it does about the quality of this disc.
The film is not guilty, but the Blu-ray release should have been better.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17
* Theatrical and Uncut Versions