In “Two Girls and a Guy”, a liltingly audacious comedy written and directed by James Toback, Robert Downey Jr. finally gets a role that does justice to his slippery, put-on artist’s persona. He plays Blake Allen, a pathological romantic narcissist who lies and poses as reflexively as most of us blink. At the beginning of the movie, two women – Carla (Heather Graham), beautiful, sophisicated, and no-nonsense, and Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner), a chipper, slightly damaged-looking punk waif – stand outside a chic Soho apartment building. As they make small talk, they discover that both have been hoodwinked into a supposedly exclusive relationship with Blake, the dreamboat actor who, for the past 10 months, has preached his undying love and faithfulness to each of them.
Incensed and embarrassed, they hide out in his elegant, airy duplex, and there, soon enough, arrives the jerk himself – singing an aria, riffing into the mirror, high on his talent, looks, and panache. Why don’t they just kill him? The beauty of “Two Girls and a Guy” is that it presents us with a hero so craven, so indefensible in his duplicity, that his twin victims leapfrog past vengeance into an almost physical state of curiosity. They simply have to know what makes him tick.
Working on a budget of just $1 million, Toback achieves a poetic spontaneity and impudence. “Two Girls and a Guy” never leaves Blake’s apartment, but the lyrical camera work and tricky, unfolding wit of the dialogue give it a delicate suspense. When Blake is called on the carpet, he sputters with hapless protest, spewing lies even between his abashed explanations. Carla and Lou know that he’s lying, and he knows they know. But he can’t stop. A performer to the end, he fakes suicide, does Shakespeare, and sheds his identity like a slow dance of veils. The movie’s haunting theme song, heard in several versions, is “You Don’t Know Me.” The lyrics apply, at first, to Blake’s infidelity, then to his vision himself (it’s the song Downey chants robotically into the mirror during an unnerving breakdown scene), and, finally, to all three characters, as deception – that is, the ultimate unknowability of any one person – is revealed to be the secret metaphysic of relationships themselves. Those lyrics apply, as well, to Robert Downey Jr., an actor who, by the end of “Two Girls and a Guy,” we feel, at long last, we know after all.