The Look of Love is a biopic of Paul Raymond, the man who opened Britain’s first strip club, bought out the men’s softcore magazine Men Only in the ‘70s, and built a huge property empire that ensured he was one of the richest men in the UK. He’s certainly an interesting figure, adamant throughout his career that he wasn’t a pornographer, and ably played by Steve Coogan as if he was everything Alan Partridge always desperately wanted to be. Framed in flashback—the opening scenes tell us that Raymond has just learned of his daughter Debbie’s (Imogen Poots) death—we then see how Raymond’s property empire developed, moving from entertainer to backstage producer to sleaze-theatre owner to high-flying property magnate.
Director Michael Winterbottom’s career has certainly been a very interesting and varied one, flitting between all sorts of genres at an absurdly prolific rate (at least one film a year most years) to the point that he can be accused of lacking a sense of quality control—much of his work falls between average and unfocused—but its rarely without worth, with nearly every film offering something of interest.
So it is with The Look of Love: it’s a gracefully shot film with shimmering colours and a graceful early section in black-and-white, buoyed by good performances, but little in the way of genuine insight. The main point that The Look of Love makes is that money doesn’t buy happiness (you don’t fucking say?) and that kind of facile observation is hardly enough to build a meaningful film, so it’s up to other elements to make up for it. With a litany of faces familiar to British comedy fans (Coogan obviously, but also Chris Addison, Stephen Fry, David Walliams, and Dara O’Briain), the film certainly has its fair share of jokes amusingly delivered.
The crux of the dramatic arc falls on Raymond’s relationship with his daughter; it’s a relationship with a lot of surface affection but little substance beneath, bringing out the weaker aspects of Raymond’s character, like, for example, the moment when he casts Debbie as the lead in one of his big-budget nude theatrical productions, but hypocritically bars her from appearing nude.
Both Coogan and Poots invest this relationship with a lot of believability, with Coogan giving the aging Paul Raymond the air of a man gradually being chipped away by his own status as a wealthy lothario, going through women and drugs as if they were toys, all too aware of how desperately his daughter wants to emulate him but too weak to set her on her own path. Unfortunately, Winterbottom doesn’t really seem to know what to do with this relationship. Its fundamental takeaway is that Raymond’s money distances him from genuine human interactions, but this observation isn’t taken anywhere. We know where the film ends up thanks to the flashback framing, but the journey there isn’t all that insightful.
It’s especially a shame as The Look of Love overall comes across as very much infatuated with its central character; in the first half of the film Raymond is a cocky jack-the-lad to be admired, later a sympathetic, aging Don Juan, but the entirety of the film pretty much ignores the gender politics of Paul Raymond’s empire, amounting to at most a few offhand jokes and one-liners, resulting in a massive missed opportunity. The film’s biggest challenge to Paul Raymond’s defence that he’s not a pornographer (and sure, he’s not exactly producing hardcore anal) is one quick scene where Dara O’ Briain, playing a standup at a gig in Raymond’s club, cracks a joke that his entire empire is built on the sticky foundations of spunk, which is about as true an observation as possible. But aside from this, it’s just left behind, tucked away, ignored, as if challenging it would burst Paul Raymond’s already fragile bubble.
It’s a shame, because this decision turns a potentially fascinating portrait of an important historical figure about a man who—for better or worse—played a big part in Britain’s sexual revolution in the ‘60s, into a light, frothy, tragic-comedy, drained of its political impact, floating along on some smartly scripted lines and effective, if hardly exceptional, performances. A decent work, but ultimately forgettable.