I shouldn’t taint a review with mention of crap, but it appears The Lone Ranger is tanking at the box office, normally a windfall weekend over July 4th. Will it be part of the ‘perfect storm’ of financial disasters that Steven Spielberg predicts will change theatrical distribution of films for good? If so, the new model he envisions will mean that you pay twenty-five dollars to see an effects-laden blockbuster of the kind he invented and seven to see an indie drama like Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love.
Frankly, I think it’s about time the price of admission be scaled to the budget and scope of a movie, particularly in Winterbottom’s case. Much as I admire him and have enjoyed many of his films, they always seem slight, like there’s something omitted because the director was either too lazy to shoot it or he ran out of money, with the notable exception of A Mighty Heart, my favorite in his oeuvre.
Like that film, The Look of Love is a biopic, about the British impresario Paul Raymond, played by Steve Coogan, who is at this point the Marcello Mastroianni to Winterbottom’s Fellini (it might seem I’m being overly generous with that reference, but, whether you like his work or not, Winterbottom does qualify as an auteur). This latest outing deploys a great deal more levity than A Mighty Heart, not hard seeing as that 2007 film was about the kidnapping and beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Still, The Look of Love aspires to occasional melodrama that doesn’t come near the level of Angelina Jolie’s vehicle thanks to Coogan’s innate snarkiness, as well as the difficulty of portraying the real-life characters sympathetic enough that you feel compassion for their tribulations, a challenge that Winterbottom and his team can’t quite overcome.
I enjoy Steve Coogan as much as I do Winterbottom, but from a distance, on the screen. I don’t think I’d want to hang out with him — there’s a certain snide acridness to his demeanor that might make me punch him without warranted provocation. I dunno, maybe he’s a hoot and a super nice guy and the creepy-jerk thing is just a shtick. He’s nothing if not clever that way.
Like many male actors nowadays, Coogan simply plays himself in almost every film, and his Paul Raymond in The Look of Love seems to be no exception. At first I thought this was a shame because Coogan is a fine mimic, so much so that you yearn to see him actually act (how did this become such a dirty word in performance?). Then I looked up some old videos of the real Paul Raymond on YouTube and discovered that Coogan was literally born to play this role; the physical resemblance is almost uncanny. As for the similarity in the voice and inflection, if Coogan is in fact making an effort to parrot Raymond, then it is the acting equivalent of the no-makeup look.
As the PT Barnum of strip club owners, Raymond exploited both women and the British weirdness about sex to become the wealthiest man in England at one point. It isn’t surprising that tits and ass are such a valuable commodity with our progenitors across the Atlantic: the raging tug of war between their ambivalence and their obsession with sex I believe results in the UK being the kinkiest culture in the world, yes, more so than the Germans and Japanese with their spycams streaming videos online of girls peeing in toilets. Why, it’s downright unpatriotic for a Brit not to have some burning fetish, even if it’s just a hankering for cross-dressing over Christmas. As for tits and ass, you can’t sell a tabloid there without plenty of both.
A combination of Richard Branson and Bob Guccione (with none of that man’s nauseating Liberace-as-a-womanizer sensibilities), Raymond rose to prominence in the late 50s with his burlesque clubs and stage revues modeled on the Crazy Horse in Paris. The part of The Look of Love that recreates that era is a stunning paean to the idealized pinup-girl aesthetic of the post-War era; you almost miss the way women looked and were portrayed then, until you remember your indoctrinated feminist dialectic and chastise yourself for wistfully admiring those live-action Varga tableaus.
I will confess that even as I was chastising myself — while the film progressed through the 60s and 70s and the era that marked the rise of feminism — those idealized tableaus devolved into being seedy and raunchy in a distinctly aggressive, masculine way. I suspect Winterbottom created this juxtaposition deliberately.
After becoming a household name with his flamboyant shows, Raymond launched the hugely successful Men Only — his version of Penthouse — then parlayed the profits from all of his businesses into a staggering real estate portfolio that included large swaths of Soho in central London.
Indeed, this film should have been called From Soho With Love. Either that or Sexploitation… anything other than the title it has. This piece is all about Soho: I lived in that neighborhood for a number of years, and it’s never been more jubilantly used as a setting for a film; normally, it’s given an ominous film noir-ish treatment (see Mona Lisa, et al) to convey criminality and debauchery. Winterbottom’s sex-laced theme park version of the area is more in line with my experience: by American standards of criminality and debauchery, Soho is too picturesque to be in any way ominous. Every time I left the house it was like stepping onto a set for a Visit London commercial.
The dialogue of the script by Matt Greenhalgh is crisp, articulate and cheeky, in line with Winterbottom’s style from his other collaborations with Coogan. What stood out most was Raymond’s cheesy ‘fnah-fnah’ lines mixed with quotations from the patron saint of Soho, Oscar Wilde. As for the narrative, the structure and pacing cause the film to lag for some reason, perhaps from Winterbottom’s defiance of Hollywood biopic conventions, specifically that overwrought pathos and our fundamentalist Christian yearning for redemption/contrition in the hero — we’re junkies for that in the States, but it would sink the film for urban Brits, and this film is made for them.
Regardless of culture peculiarities, the plot is perilously subservient to characterization, as it is in many of Winterbottom’s films, and that’s a fatal flaw that also contributes to the lag. Perhaps in an attempt to be cool and subversive of those Hollywood biopic conventions, Greenhalgh and Winterbottom willfully downplay the ‘modern-day’ scenes, which bookend the film and are cut away to in lieu of clever transitions; the story begins in the late 90s but the bulk of it is told in flashbacks. The 90s scenes simply flatline with static, and if that is meant to convey mournfulness and Raymond’s contemplation of the winter of life, it fails — watching Coogan stare straight ahead or at the TV with a blank expression is just plain boring.
Another problem is how un-compelling these rather mundane real-life characters were, and the YouTibe videos of Raymond back that up. An anti-hero like him is more effective when he’s a Tony Soprano or a Tony Montana from Scarface, a pugnacious, passionate despot prone to histrionic outbursts, whose life thrillingly races along rails powered by danger. Coogan’s Raymond is the opposite — he’s about as fiery as an accountant with a decent sense of humor, an overactive sex drive and a passion for Oscar Wilde. Yeah, his heartlessness is heartbreaking, but he’s sociopathic; is there an abnormally successful person who isn’t? But Winterbottom is hampered his own purist approach in recreating the characters — he has taken great pains to fashion the look of the film, the situations and the performances to be as authentic as possible. I give him the highest marks for that, but it’s also too current television for the current big screen.
It isn’t just how well Coogan is directed to be an authentic Raymond. His daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots), is so nuanced, so genuine to the self-destructive child of extreme privilege that I kept seeing a friend of mine every time she came on screen, a woman who, like Debbie, is also the daughter of a celebrity, saddled with an equally complex, equally fraught-but-close relationship with her famous parent. After the wounded insouciance and forlorn laugh that accented this performance, I’m even more a fan of Poots than I am of her Harry Potter-ish name.
I can see why this story is worthy of a feature film. It has all the right elements: theatrical sex and nudity in abundance, scandalously bad parenting, outrageous vulgarity, unreasonable wealth, tragic milestones. But this isn’t Winterbottom’s film — his minimalist, down-to-earth style is anathema to the razzle-dazzle showmanship required to make this exciting entertainment, to lift it from existential navel-gazing. As for Steve Coogan, much as he looks and acts like the real man, in the end he’s too much of a British Steve Carrell to impart a necessary sense of menace and gravitas to a man who must have been something of a covert thug as much as he was a smooth-talking impresario. Pity.