In When Will I Be Loved — a ripe psychosexual compost heap of a drama that emits a provocative scent of rot and nonsense — Neve Campbell plays Vera, presented by writer-director James Toback as the most brilliant, beautiful, wealthy, and erotically alluring young woman in New York City. Vera doesn’t just walk down a street; she vibrates, alarmingly, at an animal frequency that draws both men and women. Her boyfriend, Ford (intense stage actor Frederick Weller), is her match, the most handsome, sexually satisfying, manipulative pickup artist in New York City, and to prove it at one point he diddles three girls at once. Standing in broad daylight, leaning against a giant boulder in Central Park.
Vera has become the obsession of an Italian count and media mogul (”The Sopranos”’ Dominic Chianese), and Ford pimps his girlfriend to the old goat for $100,000. After coupling with her boyfriend (and, before that, enjoying some hey-I’m-in-the-neighborhood sex with a nice woman who never reappears — maybe she’s an acquaintance from yoga class), Vera prepares to go along with her man’s heartless deal. But then she exacts her revenge, which involves a million bucks and sustained shots of Campbell taking a long, sensual shower in a bathroom the size of a Playboy party room. This luxuriantly skanky story is, you see, a tale of female empowerment and payback!
You’ve got to love Toback. Well, if not love him, then goggle at the nakedness of his own unquenchable fantasies and fears — romantic, erotic, racial, intellectual — that continue to fill his fevered movies (”Two Girls and a Guy” and ”Black and White”), after decades in the business, with scenes like that of a guy and three girls simulating expressions of pleasure while rubbing their chafed butts up against cold rock and prickly greenery. By sheer force of insistence, the filmmaker would have us believe that the exceedingly average, girlish, churlish, and spoiled Vera is a siren (in a peekaboo performance by Campbell). By dogged protestations, he’d have us believe that he doesn’t hate every one of his characters, bathed in warm light and coddled by a soundtrack that restlessly mixes rap, Beethoven, and Bach (the classical stuff best played, the cultured count makes a finicky point of insisting, by Glenn Gould).
New York has rarely looked more full of nubile promise, as Toback and cinematographer Larry McConkey glide their Steadicam along upper Broadway in the proximity of comely college students. Indeed, promise — and real celebrity — is around every corner, as the story’s fictional characters run into real famous people. Ford tries to do a deal with actual hip-hop entrepreneur Damon Dash. Vera runs into actual actress/cellist Lori Singer. Even Toback, playing a college professor who has to shake off the female students throwing themselves at him, chats with the real Mike Tyson. Meanwhile, under the salve of the title sits the wound. When will who be loved? Manipulative Vera? Her awful men? Glenn Gould hums as he plays his piano, and Toback doesn’t say.