Americans are not used to a lot of chatting in films. We usually prefer seeing things get blown up on the big screen. It is likely then that “When Will I Be Loved” will present a challenge to some, since the film bombards us with a lot of fast-talking New Yorkers in this tale of constant conning and ultimate revenge.
The film opens with Vera (Neve Campbell) taking a long, deliberate shower, and then meeting with a Columbia professor, played by director James Toback, for whom she wants to work. They both do a lot of talking, but he’s trying to get into her pants while she’s trying to get the job without unzipping. This scene, shot up on Broadway and 116th Street, shows others arguing on the street, most notably, Mike Tyson, in a cameo, yelling up at his woman’s apartment. Every time the professor is interrupted or stops to talk to someone else, Vera gets hit on, and she flirts back.
The Vera-professor encounter alternates with shots of Ford (Fred Weller) elsewhere in town, also doing a lot of fast talking, trying to make easy money while euphemistically referring to some Russian hookers he has lined up for porn movies as “exotic actresses.” He catches up with Count Tommaso (Dominic Chianese of “The Sopranos”), and tries to lure the upscale Italian businessman into one of his get-rich-quick schemes, but the two end up discussing another matter.
When Vera gets back to her apartment at the Archives Building on Christopher Street, she has a steamy encounter with a female friend in the window of her apartment in broad daylight. Soon after, we realize that Vera and Ford are lovers. It turns out that the situation he and the Count discussed is Vera. The Count wants an introduction to this young woman whom he finds utterly captivating, and Ford is more than willing to pimp her out for $100,000. Vera allows the meeting to take place and somehow convinces the Count that she’s worth ten times the amount Ford demanded, winding up with $1 million in cash. She then decides to punish both of these men for using her.
As Vera, Campbell is one very bulletproof minx. Vera comes across as detached, a constant mystery who never fully unfolds for us. She’s very rich, but is seeking a job as a professor’s teaching assistant. She clearly feels superior to Ford, but allows him to be her procurer. We meet her parents (Karen Allen plays her mother) and they seem very proud of her, but she ultimately does things that would shock them.
Revealing how Vera plays the two men off of each other would be unfair, but suffice it to say that it’s done effectively. None of this trio is sympathetic, so you will watch the manipulations dispassionately. The handheld camera tiptoes like a cat through Vera’s apartment, giving viewers a fly-on-the-wall point of view.
Throughout the film, Toback revels in location shooting all over Manhattan, from Columbia down to the marina at the World Financial Center. He manages to make the whole city seem like it’s paved with gold, using a setting sun to its best advantage on West Side locations. Much of the dialogue seems improvised, and the run ins, with ordinary looking people and with celebrities in cameo, authenticate the New York experience of never knowing who you might come across on a given day.
But alongside this homage to New York and its 8 million stories, Toback tells the story of how two hustlers, though from very different social vantage points, both underestimate the power of a woman. Neither anticipates Vera’s manipulations. When Ford talks her into the liaison with the Count, he makes it seem like he’s doing her a big favor. When the Count heaps elegant praise on her, it still feels like the sleazy come-on that it is.
By the time Vera closes the film with another shower––not one that is washing away any guilt, mind you––it’s clear that the episode she set into motion earlier that day hinges on people underestimating her, thinking of her as a sweet little college girl. But as Vera methodically washes her body in front of us, it’s also clear that while the film may be ending her coming of age has just begun. Vera will trade on the assumption that her gender makes her submissive to get a leg up on any man who doesn’t realize just how much power her intelligence her gives her.