In the retro-sleazy biopic The Look of Love, British comedian/actor Steve Coogan and fellow countryman/director Michael Winterbottom reunite for the fourth time following 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, 2005’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and 2010’s The Trip. The boys have obviously found colorful inspiration in the life of real-life London sex merchant Paul Raymond, but their enthusiasm for the subject doesn’t always translate into compelling drama.
Coogan plays Raymond, who probably thought of himself as England’s swingin’ ’60s answer to Hugh Hefner—but who ended up much more like the Donald Trump of softcore porn. The pic dances back and forth in Raymond’s life, starting in the ’90s when his billion-dollar empire has degenerated into a string of personal and financial squabbles with ex-wives and offspring. The seeds of Raymond’s empire are planted in 1958 (lensed here in helpful black-and-white) when he opens the Raymond Revuebar in Soho. Flaunting the law with its racy, burlesque-style dance routines, the Revuebar becomes London’s first official strip club and forms the cornerstone of Raymond’s sex-peddling career.
As the years roll on, Raymond happily embraces the lifestyle of London’s libertine sex king. He talks his wife (Anna Friel, “Pushing Daisies”) into an open marriage—which leads to him running off with his statuesque mistress (British TV actress Tamsin Egerton). He creates ever-more elaborate stage shows—which end up with him producing a hugely expensive bomb starring his questionably talented daughter (Imogen Poots, 28 Weeks Later). He expands his entrepreneurial interests—resulting in a string of clubs, a pile of real estate holdings and a rack full of nudie magazines that push the boundaries of sexual permissiveness in England.
In a way The Look of Love is an interesting bookend to Stephen Frears’ 2005 film Mrs. Henderson Presents, in which Judi Dench played Laura Henderson, the owner of Soho’s infamous Windmill Theatre. That 1930s-era showclub (which Raymond would purchase decades later) was London’s first all-nude review. Frears’ film was a quaint little parable about pushing the limits of Old Blighty’s stuffy Victorian sexual mores. But by the 1970s, those limits had already been pushed—what with Benny Hill chasing topless birds on nightly TV. The only direction left for Raymond to push was straight into smut.
The estimable Mr. Raymond takes the high road, continually professing that his controversial stage shows and raunchy publications don’t reach the level of full-fledged pornography (and by today’s standards they don’t even come close). But he’s hardly a reliable moral compass. His wife and eventually his mistress grow tired of his endless three-in-a-bed romps and his pursuit of ever younger and hotter sexual conquests. There’s nothing sadder, really, than an incredibly rich 60-year-old man who thinks 20-year-old women are attracted to something other than his money. The film finds little to admire in Raymond’s business-only approach to ever-more titillating entertainment and the shambles that became of his personal life. Unlike the plucky, “stick it to the authorities” tone of Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Look of Love gives viewers little to root for.
In the end The Look of Love is just another rote, cautionary, rise-and-fall tale of how copious amounts money, power, drugs, booze and sex fail to make people eternally happy. It’s Scarface with nudie pictures instead of cocaine. Or Boogie Nights with slightly less sex. Coogan does what he can. Never known as a dramatic actor, he stretches his talents here and comes up looking like an eager professional. There are a few cocaine-
Winterbottom definitely gets the look and feel of the surface details right. At this point in his varied career, there doesn’t appear to be a historical decade in which the filmmaker can’t shoot convincingly (from mid-1700s England in Tristram Shandy to 1860s California in The Claim to near-future Shanghai in Code 46). But The Look Of Love’s script by Matt Greenhalgh (writer of music industry biopics Nowhere Boy and Control) remains as steadfastly focused on surface as Winterbottom’s direction. Gazing, hypnotized, at the mirrored wallpaper in Raymond’s op art flat, you believe you’re there in 1972 London. The problem is the film just doesn’t dig deep enough into Raymond himself. We never get inside his head and can’t fully sympathize with his trajectory from smalltime hustler to lonely old billionaire.
The film is solidly crafted and certainly exuberant. The cast is game. Watching the fabulously tacky decades—the Day-Glo ’60s, the shaggy ’70s, the excessive ’80s—breeze by is intermittently mesmerizing. But it’s ultimately too shallow a film to really connect with emotionally. Winterbottom and Coogan are fine collaborators, but this is their least effort. Compared to the manic inventiveness of Tristram Shandy, of course, nearly everything is a step down. Brits of a certain age, already familiar with the pop icon that was Paul Raymond, might get a nostalgic hit off of The Look of Love. Uninitiated Americans hoping to really dig into the man’s life might have to look elsewhere.
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