Movie review: 'When Will I Be Loved'

2 ½ stars (out of 4)

Director James Toback shows us some seamier sides of New York City's wealthy upper crust in "When Will I Be Loved," a crime-romance about callous rich kids and soulless hustlers.

Despite lush backgrounds and biting scenes, this film doesn't sugarcoat its bitter pill of misanthropy and cynicism. Almost everyone in Toback's tale of upper-class prostitution is amoral, nasty or irredeemably selfish--and that includes, for me at least, the "heroine," Neve Campbell as Vera Barrie, a daughter of privilege whose on-the-make boyfriend Ford Welles (Frederick Weller) tries to sell her to super-rich clients.

Toback first shows Vera and Ford on the same coldly sunny day, pursuing separate hustles. Ford wanders the streets, trying to con his way through a string of motor-mouth cell phone calls and later ingratiate himself with a local hip-hop celebrity. A phony show-business operator, he mostly touts nonexistent connections, and his scam is the peddling of young women, including his own girlfriend.

Meanwhile, Vera--whose parents (Barry Primus and Karen Allen) are moving her into a new luxury flat--is pitching for an assistant's job with the pompous college professor and racial-cultural specialist Hassan Al-Ibrahim Ben Rabinowitz (a hilarious cameo by Toback himself),

Vera and Ford are both on the make, but Ford is slimier. The height of his scheming is revealed when he tries to match Vera with Count Tommaso Lupo (Dominic Chianese of "The Sopranos"), an Italian media mogul who became obsessed with her at an airport. Vera agrees, and though the Count proves amazingly accommodating and generous, we can see that this randy couple is heading for darker waters and more dangerous liaisons.

Much of "When Will I Be Loved" seems to have been improvised by Toback and the actors, sometimes in front of the camera. (Scenes in which Vera encounters Mike Tyson and Lori Singer, as themselves, seem especially unrehearsed.) And since every sequence is shot with a roving Steadicam by ace operator Larry McConkey, the film initially has a refreshing air of documentary-style spontaneity and off-the-cuff irreverence.

Campbell and her character are willing to take chances. But Toback's tangled noirish plot, with Vera as a post-feminist femme fatale, isn't particularly clever or original. Nor is its feminist slant totally convincing. After a while, one begins to sympathize a bit with the long-suffering Count Lupo, who often seems the polite and gracious prey of a couple of callous young creeps--winning some sympathy that may not have been intentional.

Toback often has pushed the envelopes on sexual candor; his first directorial effort, "Fingers" (1978), is a brazen '70s classic of violence, art and cruel sexuality. But the sex scenes of "When Will I Be Loved," daring by the standards of American studio fare now, look a little soft-core when you compare them to current French and European models.

The title "When Will I Be Loved" comes from the '70s Linda Ronstadt country rock tune, and the underscore is an intriguing mix of pianist Glenn Gould's Bach, a Beethoven quartet and new songs by RIA. Toback knows his culture, high and pop--and he knows this milieu. But the movie might have been more powerful if Toback had stopped trying to continually shock us and had shifted some of the spotlight away from his younger players and more to his own very funny cameo of the black-culture-obsessed, lewdly articulate professor.

When the highly amusing Rabinowitz leaves the film, it loses bite--which simply shows that in our more jaded cultural and cinematic age, the shocks of sex and culture have become both more commonplace and more comic.

"When Will I Be Loved"

Directed by James Toback; written by Toback (in collaboration with Neve Campbell and the cast); photographed by Larry McConkey; edited by Suzie Elmiger; production designed by Ernestor Solo; music by Bach, Beethoven, RIA, others; produced by Ron Rotholz, Robert Bevan, Keith Hayley, Charlie Saville, Piers Tempest. An IFC Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:21. MPAA rated: R (for sexuality, partial nudity, language and violence).

Vera Barrie - Neve Campbell
Ford Welles - Frederick Weller
Count Tommaso Lupo - Dominic Chianese
Hassan Al-Ibrahim Ben Rabinowitz - James Toback
Victor Barrie - Barry Primus
Alexandra Barrie - Karen Allen

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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