If I’m ever writing a female character, I think she will have an obsessive love of Dusty Springfield. Dusty, for those ignorant fools, is a singer of inexhaustible soul and passion. If you can possibly listen to Dusty unironically and on her own terms, admittedly as difficult as approaching Carmen or an odd-numbered Beethoven Symphony, you’ll understand what I mean. Paul Raymond, as portrayed in The Look of Love (2013), does not echo this depth of feeling. Is that the man or the writing or the performance? Is that a flaw? Because Michael Winterbottom isn’t making a comedy, yes, this is a flaw. I did not begrudge my time in the theater, but I was left without a good answer to the question “Why is there a movie about Paul Raymond?”
Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan) began his career as a performer with a mind-reading act. One day, he says, he realized that men liked to look at attractive women and liked it even more if they had no clothes on. Genius! Thus began his career as a producer. He had a show where a lion tamer would tame a lion while two women stood half-naked on either side of the lion. They couldn’t move or else that would be offensive in some way. But they did move (because the lion was getting unruly) and that taught Raymond a valuable lesson in free publicity. He then started a private club where women would “express themselves” while wearing no clothes. He then became the publisher of an erotic magazine while also owning a number of theaters and clubs. All the while, Raymond was rampantly cheating on his wife Jean (Anna Friel), who for a long period seemed to accept his ways. But then Raymond left his wife for a younger woman (Tamsin Egerton). Much later, he has to deal with his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) who, sad to say, does not have her father’s talents (such as they are).
If this written premise lacks verve, it is because The Look of Love is a biopic of a relatively uninteresting man running a rather interesting business empire. The empire itself would possibly be more interesting to an accountant than a typical movie-goer, but its content, naked women, is surely interesting to accountants as well as non-accountants. And The Look of Love does not cheat you out of any nudity. I seem to recall a level of frustration suffered in watching Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) and thinking that there was some false advertising about it. Somewhat ironically, I went to The Look of Love understanding its biopic premise and expecting something relatively devoid of nudity. My expectations were confounded. You can’t call it gratuitous, but you can question its centrality to the film. Is this a film about Raymond or his life? It is, sadly, the latter. And his life had a lot of female nudity in it.
Because Winterbottom’s other collaborations with Steve Coogan, 24 Hour Party People (2002), Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005), and the show/movie The Trip (2010), are all incredibly funny—the latter two by experience and the former by reputation—I thought there was a good chance that The Look of Love would also be actively funny. There was probably one solid moment of actual comedy with a few gags peppered throughout the rest of it. That is partially the fault of writer Matt Greenhalgh, but mostly the fault of Winterbottom who casts the male roles almost exclusively with comic actors. If you haven’t seen a lot of British comedy, then you might have failed to notice Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Simon Bird, David Walliams, Chris Addison, and Dara O’Briain (playing a stand-up comedian), are all professional comedy writer/performers. And everybody is good in the movie, nobody seems out of place. They’re just all in the wrong movie.
Or, possibly, the joke was just too obvious to be funny. That Raymond is self-obsessed, superficial, and obnoxious. The character is a weak tea version of the one Coogan played as Alan Partridge or any number of his other roles. Yes, Raymond has some funny character flaws—“How do you feel that this is one of the largest divorce settlements ever” “I think you’ll find it is the largest divorce settlement ever”—but that’s a gag. His role as the actor in The Trip was more compelling than as an almost-pornographer who became the richest man in Britain. That’s the other thing, the character wasn’t very compelling. Where is his risk? There is nowhere for him to fall. I made this note in the theater, “Could have drawn a more intimate portrait since we don’t know him at all.” I’d never heard of Paul Raymond.
Compare this with The Aviator (2004). Howard Hughes is obviously a massive character that people famously knew little about. The Aviator could have been about anyone, it could have been fiction, and it still would have been an insightful portrait of an obsessive individual. Maybe Raymond was a relatively boring guy, but he still had a business. Tell that story in a dramatic arc. Maybe he was just a bit of a swinger who happened to be in a salacious business run in a boring way. Then they should have shifted focus to something that was interesting. Otherwise we’re just looking at beautiful naked women and that makes us hypocrites, doesn’t it? That’s how I felt watching the movie. “Oh, look at those pathetic men, supporting this talentless profiteer in their smoke-filled, sleazy joints, just gaping, leering, ogling these beautiful women who wouldn’t give them the time of day. Oh wait.” I guess the smoke’s gone.