Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Jean-Luc Godard’s recipe for a movie—“a gun and a girl”—gets a modest overhaul in three new films set in three major world metropolises. Nicotina, Merci Docteur Rey, and When Will I Be Loved are all essentially farces, with large casts and elaborate schemas. Yet each can be reduced to two elements: a murder and a woman. And though Merci Docteur Ray and When Will I Be Loved forgo firearms, Nicotina has enough gunplay for the three of them.

The most satisfying of the troika, Nicotina is also the most formulaic. Director Hugo Rodriguez and writer Martín Salinas’ flashy film is another serving of Tarantino tropicalia, featuring such Pulp Fiction trademarks as bungled crimes, fatal miscommunications, and fun with corpses. The plot revolves around Lolo (Diego Luna), a furtive Mexico City hacker who’s obsessed with his pretty neighbor, promiscuous cellist Andrea (Marta Beláustegui). With electronic surveillance and some actual breaking and entering, Lolo keeps close watch on Andrea—in fact, he can barely find time to work on his big score: electronically heisting Swiss-bank access codes. His fixation hampers the undertaking just as bickering hoodlums Nene (Lucas Crespi) and Tomson (Jesús Ochoa) arrive to get the codes, which they plan to trade to two Russian gangsters.

The deal is supposed to be data for diamonds, but the Russians question Lolo’s work and guns start blazing. One Russian dies instantly, while another one, Svóboda (Norman Sotolongo), and Nena are wounded. The dispute spills into the neon-tinted, early-evening streets, near where two unhappily married couples, Clara (Carmen Madrid) and Beto (Daniel Giménez Cacho), and Goyo (Rafael Inclán) and Carmen (Rosa María Bianchi), are closing their pharmacy and hair salon, respectively. While Lolo observes, these four other people are sucked into the impromptu showdown, some displaying noble motives and others base ones. Over the course of 93 quick-moving minutes, comeuppances are dealt to nearly every character.

In a formal device, each couple comprises a smoker and a nonsmoker: Lolo puffs fixedly as he spies on fume-free Andrea, Tomson insists that his young partner should quit cigarettes, Beto tries to prevent Clara from smoking because the aroma undermines his own abstinence, and Goyo objects that Carmen’s cigarette purchases are a galling example of her extravagant spending.

The habit that provides Nicotina’s title provides a steady supply of banter and some picturesque coils of smoke, but it’s more a distraction than a theme. The movie could be more aptly named for a film that’s actually invoked in Merci Docteur Rey: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Lolo is a voyeur, and by implication, so is the audience member. Occasionally, Rodriguez even creates a box around some salient bit of visual information, as if he were operating a digital-image-editing program, and split screens and sudden bursts of fast-mo further emphasize the director’s control of the narrative: He’s aware that we’re watching, aware that we’re aware that he’s watching.

And so on. But what is it, exactly, that’s supposedly so watchable? Mostly the framing devices and supporting players, not the story or its protagonist. Indeed, Nicotina shares one other quality with these two other films: a central character who is unlikable, uninteresting, or both.

Peeping Lolo is a forthright man of action next to Thomas (Stanislas Merhar), the pivotal—but only formally—character in Merci Docteur Rey. Appropriately, the protagonist of this modest bilingual entertainment inhabits parallel worlds: The Paris-based son of American opera singer Elizabeth (Dianne Wiest), Thomas is secretly gay. While Mom dithers about her upcoming Turandot premiere, her only child seeks companionship via the personals. It hasn’t been going too well when Thomas answers an ad that will make things worse: He’s asked by a man (Simon Callow) to hide in—where else?—a closet and watch him have sex with a younger lover (Karim Salah). But what Thomas sees is the older man stabbed to death.

His high-strung, self-obsessed mother is usually no help in such matters, and Thomas isn’t about to tell her he’s gay. So he calls a few rent boys in hopes of identifying the murderer, then stumbles into the office of a psychoanalyst, Dr. Rey. Something there is amiss, as seems to be the case in so many cinematic Parisian shrinks’ offices these days. Dr. Rey’s place has been taken by an impostor: a patient (Jane Birkin) who thinks she’s Vanessa Redgrave and for much of the movie will be called Linda. Only after Thomas blurts his plight does she reveal Dr. Rey’s corpse. (The actual body count is low, however: The film’s other deaths happen onstage in Turandot.)

There must eventually be a resolution, of course, but writer-director Andrew Litvack seems most interested in piling on complications. It turns out, contrary to the account Elizabeth has maintained for all of her son’s 23 years, that Thomas’ father isn’t dead—or rather, he wasn’t until recently. Thomas also introduces “Vanessa” to his mother, who assumes she’s his girlfriend, Linda, who’s actually a fiction. Vanessa/ Linda, a voice-over actress with pathological stagefright and a physical aversion to divas, is repulsed by Elizabeth. Oh, and Thomas finally meets a potential lover, and they bond over a shared taste for the films of Brian De Palma, that auteur of voyeurism.

In addition to Birkin’s characteristically screen-filling performance, the director arranges walk-ons by the amusing Bulle Ogier and Nathalie Richard, the negligible Jerry Hall, and—naturellement—Vanessa Redgrave as herself. There’s a comic connection between Vanessa/Linda and the real Vanessa that shouldn’t be revealed here, but anyone who takes the time to analyze it will realize that it doesn’t make sense.

Litvack, a Merchant-Ivory protégé, is neither an innovator nor a distinctive stylist. Still, his enthusiasm for gambits lifted from ’60s and ’70s art films proves reasonably diverting. Merci Docteur Rey includes visual puns, playful interpolations of art and life, and even some slapstick predicated on a pan of pot brownies. The result may not be especially memorable, but it is amiable. And though the film’s happy ending is unearned, it is a lot more pleasurable than those murderous pre-Birkin scenes promised.

There’s no voyeuristic character in When Will I Be Loved, a low-budget indulgence set in New York City—just 81 minutes of writer-director James Toback’s leering at Neve Campbell. She’s displayed in not one but two shower scenes, as well as in erotic encounters with—to evoke a previous Toback title—two guys and a girl. As a showcase for a TV and schlock-flick actress who’s turned to indie auteurs to redefine herself, this movie may be more useful than The Company, Campbell’s Robert Altman movie: She appears attractive, confident, and natural—all qualities the rest of the production lacks.

Every film of Toback’s 30-year career has been a dirty trick, so it’s not notably egregious that When Will I Be Loved begins by pretending to be a sequel to one of the director’s lumpy earlier efforts, 1999’s Black and White. In the opening scenes, Toback cuts frequently between Campbell’s Vera and several other characters, including himself as a pretentious, smarmy Columbia University professor of African studies. (This might be a parody of somebody in particular, but if so, only that person will care.) The director also restages Black and White’s three-way makeout session in Central Park, this time with a foursome, and briefly reintroduces one of the previous film’s pointless players, Mike Tyson.

Once the opening feint is completed, When Will I Be Loved quickly becomes a minor variation on, of all things, Indecent Proposal, the Robert Redford–buys–Demi Moore debacle. Vera’s hustler boyfriend, Ford (Frederick Weller), is cooking lots of deals, and he claims to be just a conversation away from a high-powered entertainment-industry job. In fact, he has only one prospect: Italian media magnate Count Tomasso (Dominic Chianese) has spied Vera and is smitten. In fact, he’s willing to pay $100,000 just to meet her. Ford pitches the deal to Vera with the hope that she’ll give him this finder’s fee—after all, she’s well-subsidized by her wealthy parents (Barry Primus and the long-time-no-see Karen Allen), who’ve just bought Vera one of those spacious lower-Manhattan lofts that exist only in movies.

Vera doesn’t telegraph her reaction, but she soon puts a strategy into motion. The result is a middling pop-feminist twist (and more comeuppances) whose execution gives Vera—and Campbell—additional opportunities to display her poise. Indeed, of the central performers in these three films, Campbell is unquestionably the standout. It’s likely, however, that the only people who will bother to find out are those who already have a thing for the lithe, assured actress.CP