A Pair of Girls, a Guy And Two Hours of Therapy

James Toback’s Two Girls and a Guy evokes by its title the tinny old Hollywood date-movies with production code-driven platonic competitions for a happy-ending kiss and embrace. As it plays, however, in all its once-prohibited frankness, Two Girls and a Guy is derived more from the early French, wry, nouvelle vague romances, particularly Jean-Luc Godard’s two-timing short Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick (1957), his rapturous feature Une femme est une femme (1961) and François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962), a poster of which is prominently displayed in the to-die-for SoHo loft that serves as the single set for the talky Two Girls and a Guy .

As the picture begins, Lou (Natasha Wagner) and Carla (Heather Graham) are waiting apart in the same doorway of a loft building. What they don’t know at the outset is that they are both planning to “surprise” the same man, a faithless struggling actor named Blake (Robert Downey Jr.). After an unpleasant encounter with a neighborhood swaggerer (Angel David) and his pissed-off tootsie (Frederique Van Der Wal), Lou and Carla enter into a casual conversation in the course of which each discovers that the one great love of their lives has at least two great loves of his own. Blake, it turns out, is due to return from a Los Angeles engagement any second. Lou and Carla even know the airline (given a plug) and the exact arrival time.

Yet, instead of leaving the scene of their betrayal in a mutual huff, Lou and Carla break into Blake’s apartment for a joint confrontation upon his arrival. Mr. Toback has somehow managed to prolong and expand this sketchy egg-on-your-face situation with a series of unexpected ironies and power role reversals that are not without wit, humor and intelligence. In what is essentially a three-person chamber music concert of competing egos and compatible libidos, the burden is on the three actors to keep what is a dreamboat vehicle for them from capsizing into tedium, nastiness and sleaziness.

With an Ivy League background (Harvard, Columbia) and gigs as a proficient journalist and literature instructor at City College of New York, Mr. Toback entered movies in 1974 as the screenwriter for Karel Reisz’s The Gambler , with James Caan’s role as a compulsive gambler on a Dostoyevskian scale of depravity, said at the time to have been modeled on Mr. Toback himself. In the near quarter of a century thereafter, Mr. Toback has been involved in both major and minor capacities on eight other productions, most of them only marginally successful commercially, but all of them at least slightly outrageous to conventional tastes. I can’t remember where or when I first met him, but his lurid reputation for having a cutting-edge life style preceded and exceeded him. He has confirmed his wild bohemianism in a curious personal memoir disguised as a biography of the football immortal and movie mortal Jim Brown and entitled, with double-edged irony, Jim .

Mr. Downey, of course, enjoys more recent notoriety for his own off-the-wall life style, which has gotten him into trouble with the law. The combination of Mr. Downey and Mr. Toback, resumed after their 1987 collaboration on The Pick-Up Artist , would seem to be either a match made in heaven or hell, or too much of a good or bad thing. I am reminded of a hilarious revelation by a historian on the Newshour With Jim Lehrer that Warren Beatty was originally cast to play World War II Navy lieutenant John F. Kennedy in P.T. #109 (1963), but the Presidential family intervened to substitute Cliff Robertson for Mr. Beatty because of the latter’s reputation for womanizing. The point is that Puritanism and hypocrisy have always walked hand-in-hand in America, and, in the case of movies and their audiences, a cutting-edge director like Mr. Toback may find himself always too far ahead of the mass audience to lead them into the promised land of hypersexuality and unrestricted hedonism.

If Two Girls and a Guy succeeds as an entertainment, and I believe it does, it is not because it delivers a profound message about today’s men and women and their tangled relationships, but because it enables two artists living on the edge in life and in art to walk a tightrope above the yawning abyss of excessive self-absorption and self-indulgence. Ms. Wagner and Ms. Graham do their part in sustaining the seriocomic tension of the erotic and emotional standoff by projecting an always unpredictable and occasionally even jarring otherness to the carefully composed Downey-Toback self-portraits.

If production gossip is to be believed, Ms. Wagner as Lou flatly refused to simulate masturbation on screen while Blake and Carla were moaning and groaning ecstatically behind a closed door. It wasn’t consistent with her character, she remarked with a certain degree of sagacity. Indeed, she may have saved Mr. Toback from his own excesses, evident in the psychological damage he inflicted on the Harvey Keitel protagonist 20 years ago in the overly explicit Fingers .

Ms. Wagner, the daughter of the late Natalie Wood and the screenwriter Richard Gregson, is self-described in the film as “cute” rather than “beautiful,” and that is about right, but she is clearly her own person. She doesn’t have to cower in the shadow of her mother, who was generally underrated in her own time and has become a legend in ours simply because of her luminosity opposite such male icons as Mr. Beatty in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961), the late James Dean in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the late Steve McQueen in Robert Mulligan’s Love With the Proper Stranger (1964).

Ms. Graham somehow does less with more than Ms. Wagner, partly because she is dragged into a subplot involving Blake’s obsession with his dying and eventually dead mother. This subplot is not articulated convincingly enough to make us believe in her unseen presence as something of flesh and blood rather than a theatrically mood-changing contrivance. Yet, Ms. Graham, too, has many fun-filled moments of deflating the presumptuously sexist conceits of Mr. Toback and Mr. Downey, who is, as always, nothing short of superb as a charmer with soul.

After Auschwitz: Survival and Revival

Francesco Rosi’s The Truce (La Tregua) , from a screenplay by Mr. Rosi, Stefano Rulli and Sandro Petraglia, and a screen adaptation by Mr. Rosi and Tonino Guerra, based on the book by Primo Levi, turns out to be a noble, almost heroic enterprise, production-wise, but only an intermittently absorbing film experience. There is no getting around it. The misguided decision to make the film mostly in English, and broken, often incomprehensible English besides, does a disservice to the eloquence and stature of Primo Levi as a literary witness to the Holocaust, the central historical event of the 20th century, particularly for guilt-ridden and not entirely innocent Christians like me. Yet the movie almost redeems itself with the occasional readings, by the Italian-American actor John Turturro as Levi, the perplexed survivor of Auschwitz, of Levi’s powerful prose from The Truce , published in 1958 and describing experiences he had endured after his liberation from Auschwitz by Russian cavalry troops in 1945.

Strictly speaking, The Truce is not focused so much on the Holocaust itself as on its aftermath for the comparatively few survivors who must overcome their guilt and trauma to rediscover the promise and miracle of life. Levi is quoted as having written, and here I am indebted to the copious program notes provided by Miramax Films, that “the material discomfort, the exhaustion, the hunger, the cold, the thirst tormenting our bodies, paradoxically only distracted us from the overwhelming unhappiness of our spirits. We could not be perfectly unhappy. Witness the fact that, in the camp, suicide was fairly rare. Suicide is philosophical: It is the result of a process of thought. And urgent daily needs prevented us from thinking: We could long for death, but we could not think about bringing on our own deaths. I was close to suicide before and after the camp, but never there in the camp.”

Against this carefully thought-out but still horrific paradox is the unsettling fact and tragic irony of Primo Levi’s own suicide in Turin on April 12, 1987, when he was not yet 68 years old and had seemingly conquered the demons of despair with the consummate prose of his literary remembrance of horrors past. This presents a problem for Mr. Rosi’s film beyond that of awkwardly spoken dialogue. It is the problem of celebrating the beauties and glories of life in a world with far more vivid memories of death meted out by supposed human beings to other human beings. Of what consolation ultimately is the survival of life itself to the witness-survivor of Auschwitz? Levi’s suicide provided a disturbing answer to the thematic thrust of his book, and the hopeful movie made from it.

Mr. Turturro gives a restrained, dignified and unselfish performance as Primo Levi, but he cannot single-handedly bring to life the comatose ideas of survival and revival in such a gruesome context. Mr. Rosi, the gifted director of Salvatore Giuliano (1961) and The Mattei Affair (1972), is more at home on the attack against evil and corrupt institutions than he is with the spiritual healing process required in The Truce . Perhaps there are too many social viruses in the air as we speak for Levi’s spasms of hope and joy to be expressed in a film, however well intentioned