Days of Whine and Neuroses

Slimy guys, no-nonsense women.

Is there anything more pathetic than a philandering male caught in a lie–caught with his pants down? The most virile will often whine and stammer like Woody Allen. Others will take the offensive, indignantly accusing the female of emotional abuse for having the insensitivity to be outraged. Watching such a character squirm and dissemble is the chief pleasure of Two Girls and a Guy, James Toback’s semi-entertaining, semi-embarrassing chamber psychodrama.

The picture gets off to a frothy screwball start, in which two luscious young women, the classy Carla (Heather Graham) and the punky Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner), stand side by side in the entryway of a SoHo loft building, only to discover (“Your boyfriend’s an actor? So’s mine!”) that they are waiting to surprise the same man, Blake (Robert Downey Jr.). Boy, they say, when they have each discovered who the other is, will he be surprised; and boy, is he. Their bombshell to Blake is prolonged until the viewer wants to scream, and the payoff is inspired: Dead in the water, Blake babbles incoherently for several minutes (“I’ve never said a word to either one of you that I did not mean. … This is really horrendous, this is devastating. … Why are you doing this to me?”), climbs the steps to his loft bedroom, slides the shoji screen shut, and–BLAM!--blows his brains out.

No, not really–he’s just faking. See, he’s an actor, and that’s how he grapples with–or avoids grappling with–real emotion. It isn’t long, alas, before Carla is posing probing questions such as “Do you have any real feelings, or is it just an act?” and Blake is saying, “Words are not serving me at all, language is lies, that’s why I play the piano,” and the three are sitting in front of mirrors that split them into different selves–and who can know who anybody really is anyway, really, anyway? Really.

Downey looks in the mirror and says to himself, “I can’t believe you. Your word is worth shit …” and bulges his eyes maniacally and stretches his skin as tight as Lon Chaney’s in The Phantom of the Opera and looks as if he’s trying to see under the death’s-head mask. This is a Big Moment for an actor. A few years back, I took some acting classes and heard a lot of this New Age Pirandelloism, so my tolerance for watching exhibitionists stare into mirrors and wonder aloud where the act ends and their real selves begin has already been strained. Downey has clearly had a lot of practice trying to explain the unexplainable in 12-step groups and with rehab counselors. He’s brilliant at reproducing this psychobabble but not so brilliant at winding up anywhere very interesting. (I have the feeling he could keep this stuff up for hours.)

More than a decade ago, Toback made a film called The Pick-up Artist, which had a lively first act and watered-down second and third acts. That was Toback–himself an infamous pickup artist–with a PG rating, with his fly zipped. This time, at least, he gets down and dirty. There’s a bit of rough sex and a lot of good, coarse talk. But he lets Two Girls and a Guy drift into encounter-group earnestness. The subject cries out for a dash of satire, less John Cassavetes and more Paul Mazursky. (In Enemies: A Love Story, Mazursky found just the right tone for the story of a haunted loner juggling three different women.) Instead, the movie becomes more and more lugubrious, finally ending on a note of high-tragic operatic bathos.

Still: a cute guy, two very cute girls, a nice apartment–how painful can this movie be? Graham is an angel face, and her acting has become less tentative; Wagner moves her slinky little body so expressively (especially when she dances) that it almost makes up for her too-studied street urchin delivery. Kevin Thompson is a canny production designer: The loft he has concocted is airy and spacious, yet compartmentalized with shoji screens and full of arrestingly placed mirrors. You gotta admire a director who can come up with a way to hang out in such luxurious digs for two weeks, acting out sexual situations with three of the dishiest young actors in the business.

S liding Doors begins with a similarly dissembling guy and two equally gorgeous girls, but it’s a considerably slicker, more gimmicky piece of work. Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), a London advertising executive who’s been sacked from her job, just misses the subway that would have taken her back to her flat in time to find her boyfriend (John Lynch) in the sack with his ex-girlfriend (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Only, what if she hadn’t missed it? The director, Peter Howitt, taking his cue from J.B. Priestley’s play Dangerous Corner (and perhaps the Polish art film The Double Life of Veronique), cuts back and forth between two universes: the missed-train universe, in which Helen stays with her boyfriend (who continues his surreptitious affair) and takes a series of waitressing and delivery jobs; and the caught-train universe, in which she moves out on the cad; meets a dear, love-struck Scottish swain (John Hannah); and starts her own PR business.

That neither tale is especially interesting doesn’t matter–the contrast alone is enough to make Sliding Doors an irresistible romantic fantasy. My chief dissatisfaction is with the movie’s softheaded worldview. There’s a difference between saying that character is destiny–that our lives unfold the way they do because of the choices that we make–and that certain people are destined, thanks to divine intervention, to end up together no matter what. Howitt has to resort to a couple of cheap, spurious accidents to give his film the finish he’s after. The dividends would have been bigger if he’d come up with a less movie-ish way to arrive at the same place.

I have no qualms about Paltrow, however, who gives her best performance–and the first to suggest that she’s more than just an inhumanly (no, extraterrestrially) gorgeous face and body. She does a fabulous British accent–middle-, not upper-class, and with a slight honk. It’s the honk that brings her down to earth, the way that Michelle Pfeiffer’s low, tinkle-free voice plays off her ethereal gorgeousness and humanizes it. Paltrow’s no-nonsense delivery suits the movie’s crisp pacing and bold, clean design (this is London at its tidiest). Even her overbite seems less adorable, more the instrument of her character’s thrusting wit. In Sliding Doors, Paltrow brought back happy memories for me of seeing her mother, Blythe Danner, doing high-style comedies like Philip Barry’s Holiday in Williamstown, Mass., in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It might be that she belongs in period pieces and with exotic accents, at least until she ripens. She certainly couldn’t be much more scrumptious than she is as a Brit.

A bitter fact of life is that one’s favorite great artists frequently turn out to be not-so-nice human beings. I’ve heard horror stories for decades from people unfortunate enough to land jobs on the sets of Woody Allen’s movies–stories brought home by Mia Farrow’s convincing portrait of her Attila the Honey in the memoir What Falls Away. In Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple’s depressing documentary of Allen and his New Orleans jazz band’s European tour (in the company of his sister Letty Aronson and his then-girlfriend-now-wife Soon-Yi Previn), Allen attempts a little spin control, impersonating a nice, lovably neurotic fellow uncomfortable with luxury and adulation. I’d have an easier time believing in Robert Downey Jr. as clean and sober.

Allen–who protests in a whiny Ed Koch voice to Kopple’s pitiless camera that he’s happier in New York, moving from his apartment to familiar restaurants to the film studio–appears sunk into himself, uninterested in Europe, Europeans, or anything but Getting It All Over With. Contrary to what you might expect, Soon-Yi doesn’t seem all that wrong for him. She needles Allen about being more complimentary to his fellow musicians and about giving his audience a bit more than monosyllabic acknowledgments. Certain overmothered Jewish men need women who are alternately worshipful and ball-busting, and Soon-Yi, with her lithe body and sensuous mouth and bossy attentiveness, clearly fills the bill.

I’ve often heard that Allen doesn’t have the chops to play jazz clarinet, but I found his playing acceptable, and the rest of his band impressive. But I don’t listen to Preservation Hall-style jazz to be impressed. The music doesn’t feel right in these vast, tony European concert halls with audiences rooted to their seats. You might regard Allen’s stammered banalities at the microphone as modesty incarnate–until you recall that he was once a brilliant stand-up comic and could easily rouse himself to say one or two amusing things. Hell, he could say a lot of amusing things. But he won’t put himself out. There’s something churlish about all that he withholds from the people who show up to see him in the flesh (and only secondarily, as he well knows, to hear him play).

Allen emerges from the ironically titled Wild Man Blues as a prisoner not of circumstances but of his own character. Kopple tempers this portrait with a truly nightmarish visit to his elderly parents, who not only don’t convey pride in their brilliant son but undermine him in ways both subtle and flagrant. I hated watching this movie but am glad, in retrospect, that I saw it. It’s the perfect antidote to People magazine: There’s no way you could watch it and wish that you were rich, famous, and beloved, like Woody Allen.