The Look of Love *** (out of five)
The story of SoHo property king – and saucy theatre impresario – Paul Raymond, framed by his intense, loving but problematically indulgent relationship with his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots, excellent), The Look of Love reunites Steve Coogan with director Michael Winterbottom in a biopic, but the sheer brilliance of 24 Hour Party People is, alas, not repeated here. That film was perfectly hilarious, informative and tragic; this one is not funny (I’m not sure it intends to be); it is very informative and melancholy, but not amazingly entertaining.
Raymond moved in a fascinating milieu – swinging Soho – amid girls, booze and drugs, but he wasn’t a sleazy dude — rather very much an Englishman, with the suits and the posh accent to prove it. In this respect, he’s very much like Party People’s Tony Wilson, who rubbed shoulders with all sorts but was always very much of the upper sort.
Coogan inhabited Wilson unquestionably (he should have been nominated for an Oscar, damn it!) but he’s more uncomfortable in Raymond’s skin – or, simply, Raymond as a human being is far less interesting than Wilson. Both men moved in salacious circles, but weren’t themselves over-indulgent, let alone degenerate; they were proper British businessmen more than anything, and it was business that always came first. (I suspect that this element of them is part of what attracts Coogan, who brought the idea of a Raymond movie to Winterbottom; from what I’ve gathered in interviews, Coogan is a dedicated and professional craftsman, more Russell Crowe than Russell Brand despite his long hair and comedy image).
Perhaps Raymond wasn’t as inherently funny as Wilson, or Winterbottom and Coogan made a conscious decision not to point the movie in that direction; Coogan makes throwaway quips, and Winterbottom cuts on them precisely (what I call the “Christopher Guest cut” – to my mind, he invented it) but the result feels like it’s asking for a laugh, not earning one.
Winterbottom and Coogan redefined the modern biopic with 24 Hour Party People. Here, they try and squeeze themselves into an old-fashioned one, awkwardly. It’s a film with so many terrific elements – a great cast all round (Coogan and Poots are supremely well supported by Tamsin Egerton, Anna Friel and James Lance), terrific period detail, a really fun world, sex, drugs and rock and roll – but it never becomes electric. I suspect the blame ultimately lies with the subject. In the end, Paul Raymond was simply a real estate baron who became Britain’s wealthiest man – a notable achievement, but a vacuous, conservative one, despite being constantly surrounded by tits.