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Meandering toward an indecent proposal

'When Will I Be Loved,' starring Neve Campbell, wants to be an erotic thriller but gets lost along the way.

September 10, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff writer

"When Will I Be Loved" stars Neve Campbell as an archetypal femme fatale, which is the best explanation you're likely to get as to why her twentysomething character's name is Vera. Clearly, it's not a name her bourgeois-bohemian mom, portrayed by Karen Allen in flowing garments, would have picked out for her princess. You'd just as soon find a Myrtle among the teen mogulettes fingering the merchandise at Barneys.

Set in contemporary New York, the movie is ostensibly about a smart, powerful young woman who learns to use to her advantage the way men underestimate her. There's a plot buried in here somewhere involving a deadly love triangle in which cash is exchanged for sexual favors. But with its improvisatory tone and loose, rambling structure, which often approaches a total breakdown of coherence, the story takes about half an hour to emerge.

Plucked from the annals of film noir by budget polemicist James Toback, Vera is intended to take her place in a long line of cinematic black widows, the kind of girl who has no compunction about dating 'em and exterminating 'em. (We're treated to her sexually rapacious side straight away, when she soaps up in her high-rise, parent-purchased luxury apartment's shower and shares an intimate moment with a nozzle.)

But then, inexplicably, we also get large doses of Vera walking around, Vera wiping a laconic brush across canvas, Vera fooling around with a sexy college girl, Vera exchanging inexplicable innuendo with her doting parents, who won't stop asking if her new mattress is suitably "firm and hard."

So it's not quite noir, and it's not quite comedy, either. That despite the fact that "When Will I Be Loved" self-consciously cribs its premise from the lodestar of high-stakes pimp dramas, "Indecent Proposal," which the characters allude to twice. At least that movie got through its premise with a straight face.

Toback himself plays Professor Hassan al-Ibrahim ben Rabinowitz, a jargon-spouting don of African studies decked out in tribal wear, who meets Vera for a walk to discuss a job as his assistant. Not merely does she deftly anticipate and deflect his advances, she picks up another strange guy every time he turns his head. (And they say there are no men in New York.)

The movie cuts relentlessly between the perambulating Vera and her loitering hustler boyfriend Ford (Frederick Weller) who trolls the streets, barking into his cellphone and setting up petty scams. Every glaring contrast between Vera and Ford is underscored by a pylon-driving musical score -- Beethoven, Bach and Brahms for her, hip-hop for him. It goes on for an absurdly long time, consistently failing to build any tension.

Eventually, we learn that Ford has rented Vera to an Italian media mogul, Count Tommaso Lupo (Dominic Chianese) for $100,000. Vera agrees to the scheme, much to Ford's surprise -- and, well, it all ends in tears. Hers, it turns out, are crocodile.

If any of this makes "When Will I Be Loved" sound like an erotic thriller, I apologize.

Campbell manages to appear natural and relaxed in some contrived situations, including running into Lori Singer and Mike Tyson in two more "as themselves" celebrity cameos. But Weller -- who has the thankless task of portraying the hideous, not to mention ridiculous, Ford -- has a tougher time with the improvisation-style dialogue. He sounds as if he had swallowed Spike Lee on his way home from a seminar on not listening. Watching Ford's character unfurl, one thing becomes quickly apparent -- it doesn't take that long to establish someone as a jerk. To dwell on it is just cruel.


'When Will I Be Loved'

MPAA rating: R for strong sexuality, nudity and language.

Vera Barrie...Neve Campbell

Ford Welles...Frederick Weller

Count Tomasso Lupo...Dominic Chianese

Professor Hassan al-Ibrahim

ben Rabinowitz...James Toback

An IFC Films release. Writer-director James Toback. Producers Ron Rotholz, Robert Bevan, Keith Hayley, Charlie Saville, Piers Tempest. Cinematographer Larry McConkey. Editor Suzie Elmiger. Costume designer Luca Mosca. Production designer Ernesto Solo. Set decorator Mila Khalevich. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes.

In selected theaters.

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