Monday, April 22, 2013

'The Look of Love' (2013) directed by Michael Winterbottom

This movie stars Steve Coogan, it also features Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, David Walliams, Dara O'Briain, Chris Addison, Sarah Solemani, Simon Bird and James Lance.  All are famous for being incredibly funny.  So you could be forgiven for thinking that The Look of Love is a comedy.  It isn't.  Or, if it is, it's not a funny one.  This is a very strange goose; the film has a comedy pedigree second to none, the director's previous films with Coogan, A Cock and Bull Story and Twenty Four Hour Party People are both nicely pitched comedy dramas that exploit Coogan's distinctive charm to their own ends.  His TV show, The Trip, also starring Coogan was actually perfect, knowing exactly what it wanted to achieve and effortlessly succeeding.  But The Look of Love is strangely passionless, a film not quite sure either what it wants to do or what it wants to say.

This is a biopic of Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan), the man known as 'The King of Soho'.  We follow the man from working on the London stage to later success working in the London strip scene.  His rise seems inexorable, he's a man with a nose for sensationalism, who lives firmly by the maxim that any publicity is good publicity.  As his stature and bank balance grows he rapaciously acquires property and as the years tick by we see the public's tastes for porn growing ever more explicit.  But this is as much Raymond's daughter Debbie's (Imogen Poots) story.  She's very much a girl in her father's image.  She ends up more as his sidekick than family, willingly immersing herself in his seedy world of tits, cocaine and champagne.  

Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan) and Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton)
The primary problem with The Look of Love is that the life story of Paul Raymond is neither particularly cinematic, nor, to be frank, particularly interesting.  We skip to his success about fifteen minutes into the film and he's never in the remotest danger of being toppled off his lofty perch.  When the drama does come it feels a bit soap operatic, melodramatic and ultimately inconsequential.  Raymond leaves his wife for a younger woman, his daughter develops a drug habit, the government wants to prosecute him on obscenity charges - all these problems flow off him like water off a duck's back, not affecting his upward trajectory in the slightest. If your idea of a good time is to see Steve Coogan having an outstandingly fun looking time with mountains of cocaine and strippers galore this is the film for you.  Unfortunately, while I'm sure it was fun to live through, it's not so much fun to watch.

Adding to this lack of dramatic tension is one of the slackest narratives I've seen in a while.  There is absolute no forward thrust here, the strucutre increasingly feels episodic, each scene having little impact on the next.  The annoying thing is that you sense that this material is potentially jammed full of interesting thematic material - for god's sake, this is essentially the history of Soho from 1960-1995!  There are mountains of compelling stories to be told here, from the way the demographics of the area changed over time, to the underworld figures in the area and perhaps most obviously, evolving sexual politics.  This is a film about a pornographer, so these elements are touched upon, but it's a feather-light touch.  The most pointed we get is a reporter asking "Is what you do degrading to women?", a question which Raymond, much like the film, gives the brush off.  

Debbie Raymond (Imogen Poots)
Whe it comes to dissecting 'The King of Soho', we focus exclusively on the 'King' and spend no time understanding the 'Soho' leaving us stuck with the rather tedious story of a wealthy property magnate.  Sadly, the blame quite a lot of this tedium lies at the feet of a disastrously miscast Steve Coogan.  I'm a big Coogan fan, but he never inhabits this role, reverting to Partridgisms or a Marlon Brando impression whenever the going gets a bit tough.  There's a strange disconnect between how we expect a Coogan character to be treated by the world and how Paul Raymond's lived his life.  Whenever he's engaged in a threesome, or making a pass at one of his girls or even just making small talk you're sitting, waiting for the punchline.  But this is a film bereft of punchlines; and perhaps proof that Coogan can't really play a straight dramatic role convincingly.

Fortunately the film is saved from complete disaster by the female performances of Imogen Poots, Anne Friel and Tamsin Egerton, all of whom we quickly viewas realistic, likeable and most importantly sympathetic characters.  Friel and Egerton play the two long term romantic interests of Raymond, and even though he's not the most obvious likeable man around, we can somehow sense that their feelings for him are genuine, which purely by association makes Coogan's character more tolerable.  Poots gets to shine too, none more so than when she sings the Burt Bacharach title song.  We can see the nervousness on her face as she unsteadily makes her way through the song.  She's a little off-key, but her obvious desire to make it appear she's having a good time and impress her father shines through.  It's actually so good that they play the damn thing twice, Winterbottom clearly knowing when he's onto a good thing.

But, sadly, he's largely at sea as well.  Winterbottom's previous films with Coogan are dotted with clever bits of metafiction and seamless clever staging, typographic and montage effects.  There's precious little of that here, in exterior Soho looks about as interesting as the average high street and the interiors are the same dark shabbiness almost wherever we go.  There are a few moments in the film where he allows himself to spill over into stylised montage, but unlike his other work the technique stands out like a sore thumb compared to the dull rest of the film.

It's difficult to work up too much rancour about The Look of Love.  It's boring and  inconsequential, so much so that even only a few hours after watching it I feel like I've forgotten vast swathes of it.  The cast and director have all proved their talents many times over and occasionally you sense that they're straining to make this a full blown comedy. But ultimately they're handcuffed by having to adhere to a life story that shows a successful man, but not a particularly interesting one.


'The Look of Love' is on general release from April 26th

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