[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The Look of Love opens today in limited release.]
Real estate magnate, nudie show producer, and smut publisher Paul Raymond cared more about success than people. It’s an obvious conclusion from a man who treated women as objects, put his own desires first, and didn’t mind doing cocaine with his daughter. Perhaps it’s appropriate that Michael Winterbottom‘s The Look of Love never bothers to look any deeper at its protagonist since Raymond never took a deeper look at the people in his life. Nevertheless, it still makes for an uninteresting biopic, and a surprisingly bland picture considering the lengths its subject went to in order to titillate his audience.
The film moves over the course of Raymond’s (Steve Coogan) career, from his beginning as an impresario, to the owner of most of Soho, London, to taking his love of naked female flesh into the pages of soft-core porn magazine Men Only. Raymond is almost entirely self-absorbed throughout, knows there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and attempts to pass himself off as urbane and sophisticated. Treating his wife Jean (Anna Friel) and lover Fiona (Tamsin Egerton) as disposable playthings, Raymond’s only affection is for his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots), and even she ranks below his business and pleasure. When he closes down Debbie’s stage show where she sings but doesn’t strip like every other woman in Paul’s life, she breaks down in tears. “Don’t cry. The show’s losing money,” Paul explains as if this would possibly console his child.
For a figure as wealthy, famous, and powerful as Paul Raymond, Winterbottom can never find any depth. He’s a selfish guy and he stays a selfish guy. He feels some regret by the end of the story, but we can never buy it since we hardly see any of Raymond’s self-doubt. His biggest secret is that he used to be called Jeffrey but changed his name. It’s almost fitting that such a superficial detail should be noted in a superficial story. Coogan is the film’s sole redeeming aspect, and he brings wit and charm to Raymond, but the actor has no room to build on a static, shallow character.
Winterbottom makes an empty gesture at style by trying to make the cinematography era-appropriate as we see Raymond’s career through the decades. The film starts out in black-and-white, becomes brighter and looser in the 1970s, etc. However, there’s not much purpose to this approach. Raymond wasn’t a filmmaker, and Winterbottom’s cinematic choices feel obvious and gimmicky rather than captivating. I was left wondering why Winterbottom didn’t try to capture the feel of Paul’s productions, which were wildly popular since heterosexual men usually love to see naked breasts. Shockingly, for all of the topless women, the movie is surprisingly tepid. Raymond is always entranced by a comely naked lady, so it’s doubtful that Winterbottom was trying to show the decline of his protagonist’s libido. More effort is put into the dangers of cocaine than any thoughtful exploration of Paul Raymond’s personality.
The Look of Love opens with Raymond looking directly into the camera and implicitly promising to entertain us. The film can’t deliver on this promise because Winterbottom never finds the heart of the character, nor does he seem to understand why Raymond was a compelling figure. Rise-fall-redemption stories may be cliché, but at least there’s an arc. Almost nothing affects Raymond. Women leave him and he replaces them. His daughter feels sad and he indulges her. The press attacks him and he shuts them down with a charming quip. Rather than giving us a reason to care about its main character, The Look of Love plays out like the world’s weakest imitation of Citizen Kane combined with a PSA about the dangers of cocaine.