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Parallel Lives

TWO GIRLS AND A GUY

Written and directed by JAMES TOBACK Produced by EDWARD R. PRESSMAN and CHRIS HANLEY Starring NATASHA GREGSON WAGNER HEATHER GRAHAM and ROBERT DOWNEY JR. Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures Citywide

SLIDING DOORS

Written and directed by PETER HOWITT Produced by SYDNEY POLLACK PHILIPPA BRAITHWAITE and WILLIAM HORBERG Starring GWYNETH PALTROW JOHN HANNAH JOHN LYNCH and JEANNE TRIPPLEHORN Released by Miramax Films and Paramount At selected theaters

The unexpected tolerance in the polls for Clinton’s private follies may just be one in the eye for media bloodhounds, or it may signal a coming overhaul of our bedrock assumptions about fidelity. Either way, public opinion has run ahead of the curve of most films about infidelity, which cleave slavishly to an axiomatic monogamy and consign transgressors to the predictable arc of discovery, punishment, atonement. It takes half the average Hollywood movie for someone — typically a man, too threatening the other way around — to violate the rules, and the other half for him to say sorry and/or lose the girl to a solid proposition.

Love him or lump him, James Toback ( The Pick-up Artist , The Big Bang ) has never made an average movie in his life. There is a two-timing asshole in Two Girls and a Guy , but the deed is done before we arrive on the scene. The rest is commentary — gabby, funny, filthy and, now and again, strangely affecting. Two young women start chatting on a Manhattan doorstep as each waits to surprise her boyfriend on his return from a trip to L.A., only to discover they’re hanging around for the same jerk. Bonding in righteous rage, Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner), a garrulous street urchin, and Carla (Heather Graham, last seen plying her sexual skills on roller skates in Boogie Nights ), a coolly put-together uptown blond, break into the cad’s arty loft and hide out, reciting the identical blandishments he has fed each of them and plotting for the moment when Blake (Robert Downey Jr.) will show his scummy face. When the underemployed actor lets himself in, wearing a suitably dissolute 5 o’clock shadow and warbling Vivaldi up and down the scale, his first four phone calls — to his mother, to Carla, to Lou (promising "to penetrate your every orifice with my tongue") and to his agent, in that order — tell the women all they think they need to know. Except that the soundtrack is playing "You Don’t Know Me," and that goes for all parties to the overheated showdown that follows. At this point Two Girls and a Guy could settle either for textbook feminist outrage or for the smug, jokey machismo that’s second nature to Toback, who wrote Bugsy . Though there’s plenty of both in the spitting banter that ebbs and flows as the three pursue one another with balletic grace around the cavernous loft, Toback is after what fills the space between feeling and rhetoric. Strategically claustrophobic, the movie is shot mostly in closeup, the better to decode all the dissident information a face can offer when its lips are moving in rote self-justification. Wagner, as stiff and awkward onscreen as her late mother, Natalie Wood, isn’t equal to the task, and it hardly helps that Toback is patently more interested in Graham, whose work grows more assured with every movie. But it’s Downey who steals the show: Strutting and mugging, preening and self-flagellating before the mirror, this mama’s boy who can’t go five minutes without phoning home is at once the abject lost soul and cocksure Lothario that, dammit, women are drawn to like flies. He’s a hoot, an appalling hoot, and if you haven’t met one like him, you just haven’t lived long enough. Messy, dirty and, in its painful way, a terrific turn-on, the love triangle never goes out of style, for it speaks to an imbalance of sexual power and desire that no amount of contempo free thinking — or rigid moralizing — can ever fully wash away. As the vitriol flies and Blake, outflanked by Carla and Lou, paints himself into a defensive corner, the mood is also shifting, for all three are simultaneously fanning the fever of sexual excitement that grips both the unfaithful and their victims after a detailed confession, and that will bring matters to a head. In every sense: It’s not long before one of the women seduces Blake upstairs for a quickie that will break the standoff, and all but derail the movie. For so long as it’s all free-floating talk, Two Girls and a Guy grooves on a provisional spirit that keeps the movie shifting in unexpected directions, tracking the exhilaration and horror of an open-ended game with high stakes to which no current rules apply. Distracted by the urge to shock (evidently he’s been out of the game long enough to forget that today’s moviegoers are virtually shockproof), Toback hands his actors an open ticket to improvise a mostly clothed sexual encounter that, with or without the several seconds shaved off to dodge an NC-17, comes off comical when it should be hot and propels the movie toward the one thing it was meant to do without — closure. Cop-out and all, Two Girls and a Guy is profundity itself in comparison to Sliding Doors , an affable confection of the kind that opens Sundance, pleases crowds and gives independent film a flabby name. Co-produced by Miramax and Paramount, the movie is capably written and directed by British actor Peter Howitt, and would be entirely unremarkable were its "what-if" premise not brazenly ripped off from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 film, The Double Life of Veronique , and transposed into a key of English cheek. Well, almost: Having paid her transatlantic dues in Emma , Gwyneth Paltrow flattens her vowels into a London twang to suit Helen, a public relations executive who, on being fired from her job, returns home early to discover her scumbag boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch, hopelessly miscast — the man has goodness and dependability written all over his face) in bed with a horrid Yank atop him (Jeanne Tripplehorn, pouting). Thus encouraged, Helen moves out and, fortified with a snazzy blond razor-cut, sets up in business for herself while fielding the constant attentions of the funny, supportive and Monty Python–literate James, played by the fetchingly puckish John Hannah, whose graveside oration in Four Weddings and a Funeral prompted an unprecedented rush on the collected verse of Auden. That’s Plot A. In Plot B, which runs concurrently, Helen misses the train, arrives home after horrid Yank has departed, and even though she sniffs something fishy, grits her teeth, braids her mousy brown hair and goes off to serve baked goods to the likes of horrid Yank. Well, whose life would you pick? Only it’s not that easy. Actually it’s almost that easy, for as the stories run parallel and crisscross, Sliding Doors reveals itself as a movie wholly given over to coining charming one-liners and handing out guarantees that faithless bastards will bite the dust while true lovers wait patiently forever in the wings. The Double Life of Veronique was fueled by questions about the relative explanatory power of chance and destiny. Having cast its glib vote for predestination, Sliding Doors coasts home smoothly and ties itself in a pink, shiny, self-satisfied bow.


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