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James Toback’s sexual imagination is famously dated and fatuously concerned with concrete facts as proof of virility; with the meticulousness of an engineer, Toback thinks in terms of numbers. So it’s not surprising that his new movie not only carries the concrete title Two Girls and a Guy, but also sports the gamy, and misleading, slogan “You do the math.”

But the stirring promise of this line is largely unkept in this brief, three-person movie, to the screenplay’s credit. (Toback wrote as well as directed.) After a long career of writing scripts for big movies and making little movies himself, Toback is still at it, creating a wicked, modern, claustrophobic art film that plays like Henry Jaglom even as it bares all on the subject of the untenability of monogamy.

Blonde, doll-faced Carla (Heather Graham) and scrappy punk princess Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner) wait outside a SoHo apartment building. After Lou is menaced by a wannabe pick-up artist in a white suit, the girls get to talking about guys. It turns out they’re each waiting for their boyfriends. Lou’s is an actor-musician who is expected back from Los Angeles any minute; he’s been on Garry Shandling twice, and auditioned for Don Simpson, and came this close to getting it, only Simpson died….Within minutes Carla realizes what we’ve already figured out. They’re waiting for the same one-and-only, and he’s got a lot of ‘splaining to do.

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Lou knocks in a window and the two women kick around the boyfriend’s loft—a fabulous space that, typically, he inherited along with its splendid minimalist furnishings—alternately asking each other how this happened, musing on their frighteningly parallel relationships, and making plans for the painful disposal of Blake Allen’s private parts. Carla and Lou throw Blake’s lines at each other like a backyard baseball—the one about how he doesn’t merely will himself to be faithful, but is actually impotent with other women; the one about how he never let himself feel real love before. Then there’s the one about the picture on the piano, and how she’s the first woman to have her photograph share a place of honor on his piano along with a glossy of Mom. As Mom smiles benignly, the girls inspect the double-sided photo frame.

The opening scenes are haltingly acted and stagily directed. The women never get a rhythm going; they just throw out lines, stepping on each other’s sentences to give a feel of realism that is amateurish in the extreme. Wagner, especially, speaks in the speedy, unreal cadences of earnest acting students, but she’s finally convincing, if only thanks to her mother’s (that would be Natalie Wood’s) sugar-candy prettiness, which makes this fine-boned street imp look like a girl who’s always had to play a part in such luxurious surroundings. Graham’s Carla, on the other hand, is less forthcoming. She’s watchful and reserved, clearly holding something back from this ostensibly obvious scenario of direct betrayal.

When Blake (Robert Downey Jr.) shows up, the fun begins. For one thing, he bursts into his loft singing at the top of his big, love-me voice—Vivaldi’s “Gloria in D,” no less. While the girls hide, he makes a call to each of them, checks his messages, mugs in the mirror, and generally acts like a self-besotted actor on a private rampage. It isn’t likely that most men, weary from a cross-country flight and thinking they’re alone in an apartment, would act out so tirelessly, but Toback is making a point about Blake’s versatility, energy, playfulness, and high loveability quotient. It’s only when confronted by both women that, possibly for the first time in his life, he has absolutely nothing to say.

Not for long, of course, because it’s Blake’s resourceful manipulation that has gotten him into this mess in the first place, and his reserves are still high. What follows is a delicate dance of seduction, Blake the serious actor taking a page from Richard III’s sinuous sexual mollifying of the woman he’s just made a widow of (although the screenplay evokes Hamlet, with typical overkill). Blake makes an outrageous gesture of what he thinks is repentance, takes a bath while the girls drink his tequila, calls his mother, accuses the women of manipulating him, calls his mother, calls his mother’s doctor, plays the victim, and finally asks them for the truth. As in all well-made plays—and Two Girls and a Guy functions like a schematic stage production—everyone’s got enough secrets and humanity that they all absolve each other by default.

Addictions, jail terms, and his pathetic bad-boy rep aside, Downey is outstanding teasing out Blake’s shades of anger, regret, and self-deception. He really did have a good thing going—both women are worth keeping, even if they’re too good to string along—and it pains him to reach an impasse that may deprive him of their love. The power shifts from one player to another, gradually settling on Carla, who is the proprietor of a surprising arsenal of weapons—a talent for lightning seduction, shocking callousness, and her own myriad infidelities. It’s hurt, ditsy Lou who proposes the title scenario, which is met with lethargy on the part of the other would-be participants. She wants Blake to be Ezra Pound (and so does Blake, in reputation if not in fact), one of the many celebrities whose name she can’t properly remember—a wife and a mistress, going everywhere together. She’s young enough to want everything to work out; even deluded Blake knows that’s impossible.

This talky scenario does not lend itself to a tidy wrap-up, so Toback throws in the Hamlet business not only to simultaneously exalt and send up Blake, whose stint as the Melancholy Dane is the high point of his career, but also to make ghastly hints in the direction of Blake’s mother-love, which is clearly out of control for a man of his age. But his attachment to his mother adds nothing to the scenario at hand—all of Blake’s expediency and neuroses are manifest in the self-serving triangle he’s created—except to give Toback a way out of the film. Two Girls and a Guy rambles on like an acting-school exercise, in spite of the leads’ compelling, unshowy performances. If it were some kid’s first movie, this would be an auspicious start—who else would look so hard for a reason why people can’t seem to be faithful? But coming from a writer-director who’s plumbed the combinations and permutations of guy-girl entanglements for decades, it’s an interesting, entertaining piece of arty gossamer.CP