There’s been a lot of chatter recently arguing that American movies about sex are not sexy. Despite a preponderance of sexuality in marketing today, cultural critics hold that Americans remain largely naïve compared to our counterparts across the pond. Taking a page—no, make that a chapter—from 1970s European erotic fare in the vein of “Emmanuelle” and “The Awakening of Annie,” “When Will I Be Loved” does little to counter that argument.
Maybe it’s how writer/director James Toback juxtaposes distinctly American scenes of business dealings with European arthouse-styled sex scenes. Maybe it’s the creepy way in which his camera spends the entire opening credits sequence leering at a nude Neve Campbell showering. But something in Toback’s approach to the subject of sex, somehow both lecherous and detached, makes it tough to get a handle on the film.
At the movie’s start, we watch (from a discreet distance) Ms. Campbell m********e, her boyfriend (played by Fred Weller) participate in a four-way romp in the park, Campbell and a female friend pet and pant behind a sheer curtain in her spacious NYC studio, and Campbell and Weller dry hump on a couch.
When the meager plot finally gets moving about half an hour in, the young, sexually charged Vera (Campbell) and her hustler boyfriend, Ford, strike a deal with Italian art collector Count Tommaso (Dominic Chianese of “The Sopranos”). In exchange for $100,000, the Count gets to spend some time “getting to know” Vera, if you follow their drift. As the Count, Chianese exudes old-world romance and maturity, something the rest of the movie could have used more of.
Toback instead drenches his film in pseudo-French eroticism and innuendo, only with none of that genre’s subtlety. Even the soundtrack, placing classical pieces opposite contemporary hip-hop, pounds home the story beats. The score is often so on point that it contributes nothing to the scene; other times it serves to do no more than fill dead air.
“When Will I Be Loved” wears its varied influences on its sleeve. The film’s central premise, an “Indecent Proposal”-style triangle involving Vera, Ford, and the Count, is presaged by a discussion of, what else? “Indecent Proposal.” A framed photo of the Eiffel Tower that Vera hangs on her loft wall gives away the movie’s European inspirations and aspirations.
Even the dialogue straddles two wildly different influences. Lori Singer of “Short Cuts” appears in one scene as herself, invoking the faux-verité, improvisational style of Robert Altman that dominates Toback’s exterior scenes. But when the action moves indoors, everyone starts to speak the sort of stylized verse common among the indigenous peoples of soapy dramas.
You know the kind I’m talking about, that intellectual banter and philosophical B.S. where questions are answered with questions and no one ever seems to actually SAY anything. Vera and her verbal sparring partners talk pretty mean circles around each other, in a rare confluence of dialogue, characters, and situations none of which exist outside of the minds of fiction writers such as Toback.
Campbell, to her credit, fully inhabits Toback’s creation. As Vera, she flits effortlessly from flirty to mischievous to cerebral to playful, never letting us forget who’s in control. Late in the story, Vera reveals how calculating she really is by crossing both Ford and the Count. (Weller, for his part, should have seen it coming. He faced another incarnation of the “devious woman” character in last year’s far superior “The Shape of Things.”)
The missing ingredient in Vera’s character makeup is a sense that she’s capable of feeling anything other than guile. Doing some of her best work yet, Campbell could have handled a little more roundness of character, anything to justify the film’s cloying title, which is either a misnomer from IFC’s advertising division or a cruel joke.
The emotionally opaque “When Will I Be Loved” is the sort of movie that carries no meaning other than what an audience brings to it. It is therefore likely to be widely interpreted and, almost as often, misinterpreted. But I’ll take a crack at it. Toback has equated, through the cunning Vera and the philandering Ford, sexual liberation with lack of conscience. Yet his screenplay calls forth all manner of sexual beings to cavort before his camera. At the same time, he plays these scenes safe enough to not risk upsetting or titillating anyone in the audience too much.
When all is said and done, the film is too pointless to be artsy and too decorous to be sexy. Excepting Ms. Campbell’s dedicated, if misguided, performance, “When Will I Be Loved” is a failure on all fronts. But maybe I just missed the point.