James Toback's curiously off-putting When Will I Be Loved is a tough film to peg. It's the kind of cinematic exploration that you endure more than you enjoy, and when it ends, you sit there wondering what the director has just done to you. Typically, that's an experience I crave in a film—to be in the hands of a director who knows how to use the tools of his art to provoke an emotion or a particular reaction—but in the case of When Will I Be Loved, I'm left feeling more annoyed than expertly manipulated.
Much of When Will I Be Loved has the aura of an unfinished, scattershot, pretentious student film. It's a meandering, unfocused mess until it reaches its point—a main plot that might seem more comfortable as the impetus for a powerful short film or the fodder of an old mainstream effort, like, oh, Indecent Proposal. Neve Campbell plays Vera, a wandering New Yorker who is sexually inquisitive and even voracious. Worming self-consciously through a long street-walk job interview with Toback himself (playing, good god, Professor Hassan al-Ibrahim ben Rabinowitz), in which the director expounds eye-rollingly about race and culture and sexuality, Vera has several occasions to show us her sexual wantonness, taking interruptions in the interview as opportunities to proposition passing dudes. This is supposed to set us up later for the primary conflict, arranged by her slimy boyfriend Ford (Frederick Weller): to accept the offer of a million bucks to sleep with the 70s-ish Italian media tycoon, Count Tommaso Lupo (Dominic Chianese).
The way Toback deals with this conflict is an odd mixture of indy-minded thinking and extreme self-indulgence. After the film's meandering first act, Toback gives Vera a laser focus—almost embarrassingly so. As the camera lingers on his star, it does so with a fetishist's eye, and it's difficult to separate the character we're meant to study from the actress that Toback comes frighteningly close to exploiting. Rather than be fascinated by the sexually adventurous character Vera, you're repelled by the spectre of the director fawning over his star. Campbell plays Vera with an unfortunate self-consciousness, perhaps not totally comfortable in the skin of a wanton Toback sexpot, and you can hardly blame her.
The film has a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants structure that seems at odds with the increasingly focused Vera. Toback's concentration wanders at the worst moments, streaming off into a meaningless tangents involving celebrities such as Mike Tyson and Lori Singer early on, and later, involving sleazy Ford in a ridiculous male-fantasy public-sex display in Central Park. The script seems improvised as the film moves along, and Toback doesn't exhibit the skills to make moment-by-moment filmmaking work. When Will I Be Loved doesn't seem like a film so much as a slapped-together series of self-important scenes.
Supporting characters—including Vera's parents (Karen Allen and Barry Primus), her lesbian lover (Joelle Carter), and even hip-hop artist Damon Dash—enter the frame for single scenes, then disappear without a trace, reaffirming the notion of the film as some kind of experimental, character-centric slapdash. But even if this whole enterprise is focused on poor Vera, I'm still befuddled about her motivations. When the film turns abruptly into a mean-spirited revenge tale, I've lost any real interest in the narrative. And the soundtrack is chaos of musical styles that clash more than benefit the mood of the film. Not much about this film seems really earned.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Orange! Although the image is transferred accurately and anamorphically at 2.35:1, the image is overloaded with reds, which you can see abundantly in the unfortunate skin tones. That's the worst news about the image, and it's difficult to see past, but detail is adequate (if obscured by the muddy color), coming across as mostly soft. As if to compensate, the image is also too dark, shadowing a lot of detail that should pop. I noticed edge halos on hard edges.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is weighted toward the front, appropriately for this dialog-focused drama. I wouldn't expect much in the way of audio fireworks. Thankfully, dialog is treated accurately, with no distortion in the high end. The chaotic score is translated well. I noticed only slight action in the surround channels, most often in outdoor ambient opportunities.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The foremost extra on the disc is an Audio Commentary by Director James Toback. It's a fairly monotone track, in which Toback talks about what he was going for, shot by shot, scene by scene. He's not afraid to tell you how beautiful some of his scenes are, and he's perfectly okay with comparing his writing with that of Dostoevsky and Shakespeare. I confess that Toback's examination of his own film struck me as a bit heavy with ego, and that's a turnoff for me. But you can tell the film means a lot to him, calling the language "sculpted" and "provocative."
In the curiously sordid Scene Sexplorations, Toback and Campbell sit together and discuss Campbell's nude and sexual scenes in the film. There are four segments, titled A Nice Hot Shower, Girlfriends, Ford's Big Score, and A Tryst with a Twist. Although this interview snippets will appeal to the prurient among you (and I count myself in your crowd), it smacks of marketing shamelessness. Toback comes across as pretentious, and Campbell seems a bit nervous, stumbling over her words a few times. The interviews are laced with racy footage, and after each segment, you can jump straight to the actual scenes in the film.
Last and least, when you plop the disc in your player, you're assaulted by forced nonanamorphic-widescreen trailers for Code 46 and Wicker Park. You'll also find trailers for De-Lovely, Raging Bull, Confessions of an American Girl, Kiss the Bride, Lost Junction, The Business of Strangers, New York New York, Boxcar Bertha, Out of Time, and two The Thomas Crown Affair DVDs.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
When Will I Be Loved too obviously bears the ego-stamp of its director. You might be curious to witness Neve Campbell's first-ever nude scenes (as Toback clearly was), but this film is a test of endurance. The image quality is disappointing, and the extras feel pretentious and exploitative. Consider this DVD a rental only.