Is there any young woman working in American film today who’s more physically fetching, more dramatically unaffected, and more daring in her choice of roles and willingness to push the envelope in front of the camera than Neve Campbell? James Toback’s “When Will I Be Loved” opens with an extended scene of her taking a shower and then masturbating in the nude–a sequence which is certainly an eye-opener. Soon afterward, she’s shown in an extremely intimate pose with another woman. She engages in equally close moments with men in the course of the picture. And then late in the film, she has a scene in which she snuggles alone on a blazing red sofa, obviously gratifying herself; and though she remains fully dressed and completely alone throughout, it proves even more erotic than any of the others that have preceded it. More importantly, elsewhere Campbell offers a performance of intelligence and craft, creating a portrait of an outwardly naive but cunning young woman whose enigmatic interior life is concealed by an loose, almost childlike openness.

All of the actress’ excellence doesn’t mean, unhappily, that as a whole Toback’s picture is particularly good. In fact, it’s a decidedly imperfect piece of work, with a twenty-minute introductory passage that’s reminiscent of his more appalling exercises (1997’s “Two Girls and a Guy” and 1999’s “Black and White”) in its hand-held, improvisational messiness and in-joke nonchalance. True, Campbell demonstrates a charming ease here as Vera Barrie, who’s applying for an assistant’s job with the unlikely-named Professor Hassan Al-Ibrahim Ben Rabinowitz (Toback himself), a supposed Columbia University scholar of African-American studies; as they saunter along the sidewalk, she periodically stops to flirt with attractive young men–thereby revealing an important facet of her character. But the dialogue is much less clever than it ought to be, and the footage devoted to creepy hustler Ford Welles (Frederick Weller)–who, as it will turn out, is Vera’s sleazy boyfriend–and Count Tommaso Lupo (Dominic Chianese), an Italian media giant with eyes for Vera, is rather limp; and a cameo by Mike Tyson, loudly claiming to be somebody else, falls flat. (So does one by Lori Singer a bit further on.) But when the picture switches into a more conventionally narrative mode with a story that’s a feminist revenge switch on “Indecent Proposal” told in a style reminiscent of late Kubrick (“Eyes Wide Shut” in particular), it becomes–if not great–surprisingly compelling. And that’s largely due to Campbell. Even in that sloppy opening, you couldn’t take your eyes off her, and now that she becomes the absolute center of attention, she’s absolutely riveting. Alternately engaging, adolescent, sultry and mysterious, she builds a character both open and ambiguous so well that it’s impossible not to be fascinated in what will be revealed about her next. And when the plot per se kicks in, she dominates the proceedings effortlessly, like the classic heroines of old Hollywood–though the picture is far from the vehicles they starred in. In fairness it must be said that Toback shows his versatility here, too, switching from the ragged style of the initial reel to a cool, elegant alternative, shooting the long, dialogue-driven scenes in a smooth, methodical fashion that distances us emotionally from the action in the same way that Kubrick did in “Eyes.” (The excellent widescreen cinematography in this section is by Larry McConkey.) If he’d found co-stars who could match Campbell, “When Will I Be Loved” might have been a minor masterpiece. Unfortunately, while Weller gets the seediness right, his flashy, almost hysterical turn is entirely a surface phenomenon, and though Chianese captures Lupo’s pseudo-dignified cunning, he makes the mogul too passive a figure to convince. Another irritant is the music score, which is simply too pervasive and too loud. Much of it consists of various pieces by Bach performed by the inimitable Glenn Gould, to whose recordings Vera seems to listen constantly (and whose version of a Beethoven concerto Lupo also signally praises); and while I defer to nobody in my admiration for that remarkable artist, Toback overlays his playing too insistently–perhaps intending the contrapuntal character of the pieces so magisterially conveyed by Gould as a counterpoint to the intricacy of his script–and at too high a volume (at times it threatens to overwhelm the dialogue). The main alternative is a brief snippet from a Beethoven quartet played by the Budapest Quartet, whose mournful tone certainly acts as a contrast to the Bach; but it’s too frequently employed. (The hip-hop stuff one could have done without altogether.)

Ultimately, though, Campbell’s remarkable and provocative performance rescues Toback’s film from its obvious, even glaring weaknesses. Like “Harvard Man” a couple of years ago, “When Will I Be Loved” happily demonstrates its maker’s ability to play with what is essentially genre material in a loopy, larky way, and though the result is hardly flawless, like its heroine it possesses a fascination more ordinary films certainly do not.