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''Two Girls and a Guy'' has tongues wagging

”Two Girls and a Guy” has tongues wagging — The new film is a controversial comeback for star Robert Downey Jr. and director James Toback

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It’s clear from the moment you meet him: James Toback has an oral fixation. Not necessarily a sexual one, although the director’s new movie, Two Girls and a Guy, does dish out a soon-to-be-notorious display of lip service. No, Toback’s compulsion comes out the old-fashioned way. He loves to talk. He’s talking before he even sits down for lunch. He’s still talking when he leaps up to leave. Eight years ago he made a funny, riveting documentary called The Big Bang, which consists of various people — a boxer, a nun, a reformed gangster — talking about sex, death, and God. Conversation is to James Toback what a melody was to Miles Davis: an excuse to cut loose.

So it makes sense that Two Girls and a Guy, like Chasing Amy and In the Company of Men in seasons past, looks like the latest indie talkathon destined to produce winks and skirmishes around the gender-wars watercooler. The plot is straightforward: After a business trip, a guy comes home to his Manhattan loft. His girlfriend (Heather Graham) is waiting for him. So is his other girlfriend (Natasha Gregson Wagner). The guy has a little explaining to do. Fast. ”For every guy or girl who has ever had any kind of complications in his or her sex life, this is the quintessence of the worst nightmare that could emerge,” Toback says.

The guy, by the way, is played by Robert Downey Jr. — a bit of fat that stokes the flames a little higher, thanks to Downey’s recent tangles with the law. In fact Toback — who directed Downey in 1987’s The Pick-Up Artist, a tale of manic womanizing that struck some people as vaguely autobiographical — cranked out the Two Girls script in four days after seeing Downey in handcuffs on TV. ”I felt bad for him,” Toback says, ”but at the same time I thought, When he gets out of rehab, it’ll be a good time to try something bold and ambitious with him.”

”Bold” isn’t the half of it. At one point, Downey stares into a mirror and breaks into a soliloquy of self-deception that’s downright eerie to watch. ”For anyone who’s looking to understand Robert’s past, present, and future,” says Toback, ”all you really have to do is look at that scene, and that’s the answer.” On the set, Toback’s directions to Downey were simple: ”Delight me, amuse me, fascinate me, frighten me, horrify me, engage me. That’s what he wants to hear, and he will deliver.”

Having peered so far into Downey’s skull, however, Toback was deeply concerned when a Los Angeles court packed the star off to jail last December. ”I was worried that he wouldn’t get out,” Toback admits. ”Either he’d be killed or commit suicide, one or the other. It would not have surprised me. I mean, I think he is ideally unsuited to incarceration. He is an exuberant, gentle, free spirit. His violence is all verbal. He is not looking to get into fights with people. There is just about nobody I could think of — physically, emotionally, psychologically — who is less qualified to handle jail.”

Toback has had his own dalliances with the dark side, whether it’s his near-lethal acid trip at Harvard in the ’60s or the infamous orgies at the mansion of football star Jim Brown in the ’70s or the compulsive skirt chasing that landed him in the acid bath of Spy magazine in the ’80s. (These days, at 53, Toback says he’s ”happily married and in love with my wife,” writer and teacher Stephanie Kempf.) While his directorial work has tended toward the obscure — his first film, 1978’s cult confection Fingers, was a fascinating Mean Streets-meets-Shine character study that had critics’ digits tangled up in praise and disdain — Toback did land an Oscar nomination for writing 1991’s Bugsy, and he’s a close confidant to showbiz insiders like Warren Beatty, Barry Levinson, and imperial ICM agent Jeff Berg. Even so, Toback remains a sort of Hollywood outlaw, connected to the power center by keeping coolly disconnected. ”He has a regard within the industry that far exceeds the prominence that he has in the public eye,” says his friend, Two Girls producer Edward Pressman.