Judge Patrick Bromley's answer to the title question is, "Right after closing time, or after the exchange of appropriate financial considerations, whichever comes first."
Revenge is a dish best served hot.
One of the things I love best about film—as with any art form (though one could argue that because just about everyone sees movies from time to time, it's this particular art form about which just about everyone has an opinion)—is its total subjectivity. As the old saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure. James Toback's latest film, When Will I Be Loved, is neither treasure nor trash; it's a mess, albeit one with some particularly fine elements—most notably an impressive turn by Neve Campbell (The Company), as a modern-day femme fatale by default.
Roger Ebert, the film critic whose writing I most admire, first reported on When Will I Be Loved back when he saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, followed by an absolutely glowing review a few weeks later in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times (I've included a link to his review in the Accomplices at right). He gave the movie four stars—his highest rating—hailing it as "fascinating" and "ingenious," and described a skillfully crafted film of great originality and surprise. So, why all of this talk of Ebert's review? Well, reading the way he had painted When Will I Be Loved as a kind of masterpiece got this reviewer very enthusiastic about seeing it; having now watched it, I can say that the film that Ebert saw is not the same film I saw—this one movie perfectly encapsulates film's subjectivity.
Campbell plays Vera, whom we first meet as she interviews for an apprenticeship with a college professor (writer-director Toback, in an unfocused and uncomfortable cameo that goes on far too long). As the two walk and talk down the streets of New York, Vera occasionally finds ways to wander off and introduce herself to attractive men she sees. Her boyfriend Ford (Fred Weller, The Shape of Things) is a small-time hustler forever trying to land a big score—which he may have finally done by setting up a meeting between his girlfriend and Count Tomasso (Dominic Chianese, otherwise known as Junior Soprano), an Italian media mogul willing to pay a large sum of money for an evening with Vera. Ford pitches the idea to Vera, who accepts, which leads to the film's longest and best scene, in which Vera and Tomasso (the fact that he's a Count shouldn't inspire giggles, but does) make good on the deal.
Vera's response to the negotiation, however, and the direction that the movie takes as a result, lead us down an unexpected path, and it's the wrong one for this film. Toback is forever inserting crime elements into films that don't want or need them: The Pick-Up Artist, Black and White, Harvard Man—all are guilty of inexplicably indulging in criminal subplots. Without giving away too much, I will say that When Will I Be Loved doesn't stray too far from that flawed formula, and that is where the movie jumps the rails. We want the characters to follow their paths to their logical conclusions, but Toback seems determined to force them into new directions, making them think and act in ways which, given what we know about the characters, do not make sense.
Toback doesn't know where he wants his film to go from one scene to the next. That kind of spontaneity doesn't suit him—it lends itself to one too many wrong turns, until the story has painted itself into a corner from which it cannot escape. The actual plot doesn't even present itself until almost two-thirds of the way through the movie's (admittedly brief) running time, and by that point it may be too late. But, then, storytelling in general doesn't seem to be Toback's strong suit, which may explain why Two Girls and a Guy remains his best film; it relies solely on the intelligence of the characters and Toback's literate, inspired dialogue (which, incidentally, is Toback's strongest suit). By trapping his characters in a single setting and forcing them to do nothing but talk, Toback is able to play on his strengths. It's the same approach that's on display in the best sequence of When Will I Be Loved, where Vera and Tomasso negotiate the terms of their arrangement—it's a sharply-written, flawlessly acted scene.
Neve Campbell's performance, probably the only reason to recommend the film, is a kind of revelation—it's too bad that Toback hasn't given her a film worth the performance. For an actress who originally caught the public's eye through a series of teen-oriented fare like Party of Five and the Scream trilogy, she shows totally unexpected depth and range as Vera. She's smart—in fact, she's smarter than every other person in the film. She's confident and aggressive. Above all else, we're meant to believe that she's sexually empowered—that's why we're allowed to linger on her nude figure during extended shower scenes, or why we see her engage in both straight and lesbian sex. She's easily the strongest female character Toback has written, and almost makes up for years of the decidedly sexist undertones his films have contained—I say almost because the very duration and voyeuristic nature of the shower scenes, plus a scene in which Fred Weller's character is serviced by three young girls in the middle of Central Park, scream otherwise.
The commentary track Toback has recorded for MGM's DVD of When Will I Be Loved is a lot like the movie itself: rambling, intelligent, occasionally insightful, and often pretentious. It's probably more telling about Toback than it is about the movie, but it provides the high point of an otherwise average disc. The film, presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer of 2.35:1, looks passable, but the 5.1 sound mix is problematic—too often, the classical music that drenches the soundtrack all but drowns out the dialogue. In addition to the commentary track, the only extras on hand are the film's trailer, a generous amount of bonus trailers, and a "Scene Sexplorations" feature—essentially a short conversation with Toback and Campbell about the movie's sex scenes. Though there is the occasional insight, the feature is never very in-depth and doesn't demand the viewer's attention.
I re-read Ebert's review after seeing the movie, and I understand his position on it—I don't agree with it, but I understand it. All of the elements he speaks of might be in the film, but they clearly came together for Ebert differently then they did for me. As far as I'm concerned, the film my most respected critic raved about hardly worked at all—the same aspects of the movie he champions are the ones with which I find fault. That's what I love about film—our experiences are totally personal, totally individualized. It's how we read films—how we interpret and react to them—that affects how we'll respond to them and how the films, in turn, will resonate with us. I'm glad Roger Ebert saw When Will I Be Loved and was able to watch a great film. I only wish I could say the same.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director James Toback
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