D. H. Lawrence, describing his own practice, wrote in a letter to a friend that “the old stable ego” in fictional characters was gone, replaced by an ego that goes through “allotropic states” – that is, variations so striking that the reader has some difficulty in recognizing that the character is, in fact, a single individual. I thought of this remark when watching Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in James Toback’s Two Girls and a Guy, because Downey puts out a furious whirlwind of moods, denials, reversals, reinventions, all in the space of a couple of hours (the movie takes place in real time), and his triumph and his tragedy are that he is many persons inside one person.
At the beginning of Two Girls and a Guy, two young women (Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner) are waiting outside a SoHo loft for what turns out to be the same man. Each thinks she is the exclusive girlfriend of the young actor Blake (Downey), and each has been lied to. The two women break into Blake’s loft and wait for him. Toback, who a decade ago made The Pick-Up Artist, also with Downey, shot the movie very cheaply and quickly (in eleven days), and some of the sound has the hollow tones of post-dubbing. Trying for revelation, Toback has moved in a little too close to his actresses and forced them to run through their lines under great pressure. For a while, the movie feels rushed and cramped. But when Downey enters, the camera backs off, and Downey fills the loft with his personality. Blake doesn’t know the women are there, and as he enters, perfectly happy, he sings “Cum Sancto Spiritu” from Vivaldi’s Gloria, jumping from the tenor to the bass line, then he telephones each woman and his mother and leaves messages for everyone. He sits down at the piano and sings a torch song.
The women come out of hiding, jump all over him, and he lies and retreats. His defense is that he’s telling an actor’s truth in sexual relationships – he can be whatever he needs to be; therefore, he means what he says when he tells each woman that he loves her. This is nonsense, of course, but it’s very revealing of Downey himself, for this is the same Robert Downey who is both a highly creative actor and a heroin addict passing in and out of rehab and jail. Downey can speak soberly of his guilt in court and jokingly of his impending doom to a friend. His identity isn’t stable enough to allow him to claim life for himself. In the movie, he glares at himself in a mirror, pulling his features into a grotesque mask, and runs through Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother. It appears to be Toback’s idea that Blake is too much his mother’s son to love any woman, but the psychologizing and the back-and-forth arguments about monogamy and betrayal are less interesting than Downey’s moment-by-moment destruction and re-creation of himself. Two Girls and a Guy isn’t a satisfying movie, but Downey is alarmingly brilliant in it – a man locked in torment who can’t find the way out. Let’s pray this isn’t one of his last performances.