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Promiscuous Prudes

James Toback's startling new film dives into the messy mindlessness of sex

In writer/director James Toback's quicksilver sex comedy Two Girls and a Guy, Robert Downey, Jr., plays Blake Allen, a struggling New York actor who lives in a spacious loft in SoHo he probably can't afford. He's a pampered prince who has worked out for himself a cozy romantic subterfuge: He has two girlfriends, each unaware of the other's existence.

The film begins when both girls -- Carla (Heather Graham), who has a face like a golden lollipop, and Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner), a cute motor mouth -- show up outside Blake's loft expecting to surprise him on his return from L.A. Quickly sizing up their predicament, they break into his loft and team up to squash the enemy.

Lying in wait when he walks in, they let him carry on for awhile in privacy. He sings Vivaldi at the top of his lungs, tickles the keys on his grand piano and then leaves smoochy-obscene messages on each of their phone answering machines. When Carla finally presents herself to him, Blake is stunned but adjusts almost instantaneously to the intrusion. He wonders out loud how she got in without a key.

Blake is enough of a rogue to know there's more to come -- his radar for the static of sex maneuvers is acute. When Lou makes her grand entrance, we can see his mind clicking away at hyperspeed. He's been found out, but he won't admit it. Instead, he sidles about the loft waiting for a break in the action. His nonstop patter is like a verbal smoke screen -- a military maneuver to keep the girls at bay until he can rethink his rap.

For Blake, this new situation is ripe with theatrical possibility, and he's enough of an actor to recognize the part he's been handed. As he twists and turns and boo-hoos his way out of the girls' clutches, he begins to get off on his predicament. Carla and Lou may have his number, but he's got theirs, too -- that explains why they stick around for his act instead of storming out right away. When Carla says to him, "Did it excite you that you were always in danger of being caught?" she already knows the answer.

Toback is trying for an erotic comedy that expresses a modern sexual mood. At the same time, it's unmistakably a Toback film -- which means it's centered on his own carnal itch. (His best, and best-known, previous films are Fingers and The Pick-Up Artist, which also starred Downey. ) Toback's gamble is that his own obsessions and the culture's sexual buzz will vibrate in unison. And for the most part, the gamble pays off -- his film is full of feints and jabs that are closer to the way the sex game is played now than most of the current frothy Hollywood romances. What the film is trying to get across is that the AIDS-era generation of sex players has gotten frisky; people are ready to experiment again. Toback doesn't make a big moralistic point out of any of this -- it's just something that comes through in the way his characters carry on. The comedy in what he's showing us is that, even though Blake and Carla and Lou are swingers, they take fidelity seriously. They're promiscuous prudes.

At 84 minutes, Two Girls and a Guy unfolds almost entirely in real time in Blake's loft. (It was shot in a speedy 11 days.) And yet you never feel like you're watching a cramped three-act play. Toback opens up the loft with his camera; visually, there's always something alluring going on. But mostly he has the good sense to let his eye just follow the actors, and they're always worth watching. This is probably Downey's best work -- even better than in the neglected True Believer and Chaplin. It's a tour-de-force performance, but it doesn't have the effect of a big star turn. It's too intuitive and freeform for that.

Downey creates the role right in front of our eyes. His acting is all in the present tense; it has the immediacy of a live encounter. It's not just Blake in this film who appears to be startling himself. Downey is startling himself, too -- he's jazzier and more subversive than he's ever been before. When Blake looks deeply into a mirror during one of his time-outs with the girls and gets all rubber-faced and goony, he could be cracking apart. But what really seems to be happening is that he's shocking himself into sanity. He mutters into the mirror, "Is this what you want to do? Hurt people?" and he means it. And yet he's so self-infatuated that even this act of penitence is a piece of performance art. And a form of seduction, too. His hangdog droop is a come-on in disguise; it invites the girls' protectiveness.

The centerpiece sex scene between Blake and Carla is remarkably well-staged. Shot in shadow, it's like a quick fever dream. (To get an R rating, Toback trimmed the scene slightly, with no appreciable loss, from a version I saw last fall at the Toronto Film Festival.) The messy mindlessness of sex is at the core of this scene -- and the movie. It's a film about how sex messes up your scruples and makes you less admirable than you want to be. It's also about how enticing it is to be disreputable. Blake can't reconcile his feelings about his girlfriends, and he spouts therapy-ese -- he tells Lou and Carla about the need to "confront." But he's not just mouthing off. On some level, Blake really does care for both girls. He would like to be "better" than he is -- faithful, even -- but he's too honest a charlatan to hold out much hope.

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