Like the glib, politically correct but morally suspect cameo role he plays in his new film, "When Will I Be Loved," director James Toback is what some would call, euphemistically, a B.S. artist. That's partly why, I'll wager, the filmmaker is attracted to Robert Downey Jr., an actor who has appeared in three of Toback's films ("The Pick-up Artist," "Black and White" and "Two Girls and a Guy"). Downey's brilliance at selling not just his fellow characters but the audience a bill of goods is what makes him so good -- and so perfect an instrument for the interpretation of Toback's slick but ultimately hollow brand of art film. Without the presence of the gifted performer, unfortunately, "When Will I Be Loved" collapses under the weight of its own pretension, a victim of misogyny trying to pass itself off as female sexual empowerment.
Let's take "Loved," for a second, at face value. The story of one Vera (lightweight Neve Campbell, attempting heavy) -- a bisexual trust-fund-brat painter living in one of those fabulous New York apartments chosen more for its photogenic qualities than plausibility -- the movie is, on one level, about the search for identity. Vera, it is made clear from her earliest appearance (or at least the one immediately following the opening shower masturbation scene), is a searcher. The men in her life -- Toback as her new boss, a lecherous professor of African studies; Frederick Weller as her caddish hustler boyfriend, Ford; and Dominic Chianese as Count Tommaso Lupo, the aristocratic Italian business tycoon to whom Ford tries to "sell" Vera for $100,000 -- would have her believe that each of them is, as Ford says, a "mentor, a conduit, a circuit," facilitating a journey of self-discovery. So far so good. If then, as Ford tells Vera while trying to convince her to sleep with the count and to hand over the money to him, "who you are is determined by what you are capable of," then Vera is, as it turns out, quite a handful. Which leaves us finally with this answer to the question of who Vera is: a whore, a liar and arguably something much, much worse, a sociopath. If this is the new feminism, give me the bad old days.
WHEN WILL I BE LOVED (R, 81 minutes) --Contains nudity, obscenity, plentiful sexual content and brief violence. At the Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue.