Men and women are in perpetual combat in James Toback's films, but the battle takes a darker, more cynical turn here. The faux-feminist streak that has run through Toback's recent work feels no less inauthentic this time, and those films' weak B.O. performance will be reprised during a brief fall run launched by the pic's Toronto fest opening.

Men and women are in perpetual combat in James Toback’s films, but the battle takes a darker, more cynical turn in “When Will I Be Loved.” Playing like a continuation of “Two Girls and a Guy” and “Black and White,” pic cozies up to a monied Gotham gal able to enact revenge on two controlling men. The faux-feminist streak that has run through Toback’s recent work feels no less inauthentic this time, and those films’ weak B.O. performance will be reprised during a brief fall run launched by the pic’s Toronto fest opening.

Toback partisans and critics won’t change their views after seeing his latest in a string of acid-tongued, polemical and ultra-talky pics centering mainly on young urban characters across the racial and gender divides.

Instead of the chatter creating the stifling feeling of a one-act play as in “Two Girls and a Guy,” the sense this time is of a short story couched in Choderlos de Laclos’ dim view of human nature. Neve Campbell anchors the nastiness in a problematic role that also marks the steady march out of her teen persona into complex adult material.

All of New York appears to be on display in the opening minutes, as Toback (with editor Suzy Elmiger) intercuts between Vera Barrie (Campbell) as she showers, preps and meets for a university job with a white professor of African American Studies and Ford Welles (Frederick Weller), a hustler who bounces between a verbal bout in Times Square with a former amour and shady dealings with potential partners.

As is his by-now-tiresome wont, Toback underlines these disparate character and cultural settings with classical music selections for Vera (a Beethoven string quartet, Glenn Gould’s Bach stylings) and hip-hop for Ford (mainly care of Oli “Power” Grant).

For a character who seems charmed with a name combining two of cinema’s greatest helmers, Ford is far from great; rather, he’s a cad who talks a bigger game than he can deliver — but, more than anything else, talks … and talks.

Vera, able to cocoon in a swanky loft funded by her wealthy folks (Barry Primus and Karen Allen), is by contrast contemplative and speaks only when it counts. Where Ford is driven like Sammy Glick, Vera is a dilettante, unsure whether she wants to work with the professor (Toback, whose character name, Hassan Al-Ibrahim Ben Rabinowitz, is the movie’s worst joke), or paint, or something else.

Vera is able to detect the prof is a horndog under his liberal chatter about racial understanding, and she shows another side back home when she enjoys some afternoon delight with g.f. Sam (Joelle Carter).

When Ford finally hooks up with Vera, their curious relationship is revealed in a terrific scene that combos rough sex and snappy dialogue, in which he professes to being her Svengali (“I’m a mentor, I’m a circuit … my job on this earth is to introduce you to yourself”), before pimping her out to an Italian media mogul (Dominic Chianese), for $100,000.

Unknown to Ford, Vera is plotting revenge. While the gambit has a certain interest — in the league, say, of David Mamet characters in a caper-game — Vera’s ability to move the pieces is nonetheless contrived. With a playing time of just over 75 minutes, there’s little room to delve into what makes this woman tick, and while she appears smart, she’s not credible as a crafty manipulator of men.

Toback appears to be trying to have it both way: He celebrates Vera’s wiliness in escaping the controlling tentacles of two men, then paints a portrait of a woman as a hip variant on film noir’s old sexist standby, the black widow spider.

Campbell’s perf is attuned to the extremes of unnerving calm and intensely erotic; unlike the pic, she pulls it off. Armed with one note and many words, the intense Weller leaves it all on the screen. Chianese relishes a suave role that couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to his Uncle Junior on “The Sopranos.”

Lensing non-stop with d.p. Larry McConkey’s roving Steadicam, Toback encourages improvisation, to mixed effect. Widescreen images are especially crisp.

As usual with the director, various celebs cameo as themselves, including Mike Tyson reviving his shtick in “Black and White.”

When Will I Be Loved

Production

An IFC Films release of a Little Wing Films/Rotholz Pictures production. (International sales: First Look Media, Los Angeles.) Produced by Ron Rotholz. Executive producers, Robert Bevan, Keith Hayley, Charlie Savill. Co-producer, Petra Hoebel, Piers Tempest. Directed, written by James Toback.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Larry McConkey; editor, Suzy Elmiger; music, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Oli "Power" Grant; music supervisor, Toback; production designer, Ernestor Solo; set decorator, Mila Khalevich; costume designers, Luca Mosca, Marco Cattoretti; sound (Dolby Digital), Stuart Deutsch; supervising sound editor, Byron Wilson; stunt coordinator, Peter Bucossi; assistant director, Timothy Sean Donohue; casting, Susie Farris. Reviewed at Wilshire screening room, Beverly Hills, Aug. 23, 2004. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 81 MIN.

With

Vera Barrie - Neve Campbell Count Tommaso Lupo - Dominic Chianese Ford Welles - Frederick Weller Alexandra Barrie - Karen Allen Victor Barrie - Barry Primus Prof. Hassan Al-Ibrahim Ben Rabinowitz - James Toback Sam - Joelle Carter
With: Mike Tyson, Lori Singer, Damon Dash, Richard Turley, Oli "Power" Grant.

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