Who is Robert Downey Jr.? For more than a decade, he has been an actor of shimmery imagination and verve baby-handsome, with a sweetly effusive, naughty-dog brashness and, at the same time, a barely visible hole at the center of his being. In almost every movie, Downey mocks, he teases, he flirts, he puts on preening stardust airs, raising eyebrows of fake intimacy at his fellow actors. Playing characters as varied as the fast-lane hellion of Less Than Zero (1987), the balletically miraculous silent-film clown of Chaplin (1992), or the facetious Aussie tabloid-TV reporter in Natural Born Killers (1994), he has glided across the screen without visible deliberation a harlequin put-on artist, literally making himself up as he goes along. (Is it any wonder that the actor has had drug problems? With a persona this slippery, addiction becomes an identity anchor.) The paradox of Downey the happy charlatan is that since you can never pin him down, he is, on some level, most revealing when he's being most duplicitous. What he has never quite fulfilled is the audience's desire to connect with a movie star's soul.
Until now. In Two Girls and a Guy (Fox Searchlight), a liltingly audacious comedy written and directed by James Toback, Downey has in every sense the role of his life as Blake Allen, a pathological romantic narcissist who lies and poses as reflexively as most of us blink. In ritzy, deserted SoHo, two women Carla (Heather Graham), beautiful, sophisticated, and no-nonsense, and Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner), a chipper, slightly damaged-looking punk waif stand outside of a chic apartment building. Each is waiting for her boyfriend to return from L.A. As the two make small talk, they discover that both, unknowingly, have been hoodwinked into a supposedly exclusive relationship with Blake, the dreamboat actor who, for 10 months, has preached his undying love and faithfulness to each of them. Embarrassed and incensed, they decide to break into his apartment and give him the comeuppance he deserves.
The two hide in the elegant, airy loft, and there, soon enough, arrives the bastard 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. Like many women, Carla and Lou feel they've been jerked around by men their entire lives, and here, at last, is the ultimate hormone-driven con artist, the Uberlothario. They need to know what makes him tick. What they don't realize is that they're about to try and pin down a ghost.
Toback, a compulsive maverick who has worked on the fringes of Hollywood for several decades, made his directorial debut with the gonzo street opera Fingers (1978) and directed Downey, in one of the actor's first starring roles, in The Pick-Up Artist (1987). Now, working on a budget of just $1 million, he 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 that feels as cinematic as most action films. When Blake is called on the carpet, he sputters with hapless protest, spewing lies even between the lines of his abashed explanations. Carla and Lou know that he's lying, and he knows that they know. But he (can't stop. Downey plays this knee-jerk deceiver as a spiritual chameleon denied, for the first time, the shield of his charm. A performer to the end, Blake fakes suicide, does Shakespeare, and sheds his identity like a slow dance of veils.
The movie is ingeniously structured, with an intuitive balance of passion, jokiness, and surprise. An outrageously protracted sex scene between Carla and Blake arrives just in time for a mini-catharsis. Even more telling are the frantic calls Blake makes (as if the telephone were an umbilical cord) to his ailing mother, the only woman, it's suggested, he has ever truly loved. The film'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 of 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. A