My initial disappointment with The Look of Love may have stemmed from the fact that I expected another Steve Coogan/Michael Winterbottom farce. Their film 24 Hour Party People was full of great winks and nods to the subject matter, and it was a compelling and fun story. As I watched The Look of Love, however, I realized that Coogan and Winterbottom were going for something entirely different: an actual drama. A drama in which Coogan takes a break from playing his usual aloof, clueless characters; instead, he tries to portray a historical figure as straight as possible. But as much as director Winterbottom tries to rein Coogan in and streamline his performance, The Look of Love still features some of Coogan’s trademark dazzle, and it’s a bit of a reach to believe him as impresario and real estate magnate Paul Raymond.
When I think of Steve Coogan, I think of his first scene in 24 Hour Party People. Here’s a man who knows nothing about what he’s getting himself into, but he’s going to make the most of it and come out wiser on the other side with a funny story to share. He’s a man who learns by experience, not just looking at what others are doing. With almost every role he’s taken, there’s some semblance of this character trait. His portrayal of the late Paul Raymond still shows a little bit of this, but there’s more of a self-assuredness and swagger that he brings with him. And how could he not? Paul Raymond, at any given time during his heyday, was surrounded by beautiful women and lots of money; Coogan imparts him with a cockiness and bravado that belies the struggle to keep his good intentions ahead of him.
Coogan takes us on Raymond’s journey from stage impresario to adult entertainment king, with small interstitials pulling together the beginning and the end; his story is told mostly in flashback, as the movie begins with him being hounded by the press about his daughter. “She had all the money in the world, a beautiful home, beautiful kids, beautiful cars… she had everything. I don’t understand,” he says to the microphones. With that, we start down Memory Lane, from his beginnings as a theatre owner to opening the Raymond Revuebar, England’s first live nude establishment where the women were allowed to move (a prior decree stated that nudes on stage could not move whatsoever), to men’s magazine magnate, with his wife Jean (Anna Friel) and his children in the background.
It’s hard to feel sympathetic for a lot of the characters in The Look of Love, no matter how humanizing this treatment of them may be. Paul Raymond is a womanizing dunderhead who seems to only want to appeal to baser natures, even leaving his family for one of his dancers, Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton). His life of hedonistic squalor is the highlight of this movie, and it doesn’t seem like he cares about any one or anything except making a buck or two. His adult child Debbie (Imogen Poots) is a lesser-talented version of Raymond himself, even as she tries to emulate his vigor and success. A lot of what Debbie does is only made possible because she’s Raymond’s child, and as much as she tries to acquit herself of this, it only leads to further problems, such as drugs and alcohol abuse.
The Look of Love suffers from trying to be about too many things and people all at once, and none of it can compete with the magnetic presence of Steve Coogan. When he’s onscreen (which is, like, 85% of the time), you’re constantly watching to see how he’s going to make his next step, whether it be in his business life or his romantic life. The phrase “it’s like watching a train wreck” comes to mind often here; you know that there’s no inherent good in watching it, but you can’t quite look away, either. Everyone in this movie acts like a petulant child, and we don’t much mind when some of them get their just desserts. And when one person’s life takes a turn for the worst, we’re left wondering: did Paul Raymond really care about the person or the legacy that person was supposed to carry on? If we’re to glean anything from The Look of Love, I wouldn’t be surprised to come away thinking that the latter was the answer.