There was a time when Steve Coogan seemed to have unbridled potential to conquer Hollywood, but it never happened. Ricky Gervais is probably to blame. Coogan’s career cracked along with passable minor appearances in American films while, with the exception of revivals of his human faux pas Alan Partridge, his only shining moments came in his collaborations with Michael Winterbottom. Having caricatured himself in their previous two films together, The Trip and A Cock and Bull Story, Coogan is back playing another morally clouded media type in The Look of Love.
After triumphantly playing Madchester impresario Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People back in 2002, an unaging Coogan is here cast as British nightclub and pornography mogul Paul Raymond, who ruled the striptease scene in London’s Soho district from the 1960s until the 1990s, when he was believed to be one of Britain’s wealthiest men. A showman by nature, Coogan plays Raymond with all the smarmy wheeler-dealer skills his characters have shown previously, although Raymond is far more successful at this kind of enterprise than many of Coogan’s other roles. Learning early on that while lion taming and scantily clad women sell tickets, scantily clad women and more scantily clad women sell more tickets, The Look of Love traces the rise and rise and occasional dips of Raymond’s bizarre career. He seduces press and clergy to keep his clubs open. He enters into theatre and publishing, both with their share of female nudity. But the film is far more concerned with Raymond’s private life, tracing his affair with his star attraction Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton) and the collapse of his marriage to wife Jean (Anna Friel), who would later re-enter his life as one of his covergirls.
The focus however is more on Raymond’s unhealthy relationship with his daughter Debbie, played by the ever-on-the-cusp-of-stardom Imogen Poots. As with Michael Corleone and his daughter Mary (and by extension Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia), Raymond’s affection for his daughter is crippling and blinding – he sets her up as the star of one of his musical shows despite her very limited singing capabilities. Debbie is anointed her father’s business successor, but her developing drug addiction begins to get in the way.
Winterbottom playfully shoots his film in the style of each decade, beginning in crisp black and white before dissolving into the bleached colour palettes of the ’60s and ’70s. The production design is superb, but there’s a staleness to the imagery despite its quality. 24 Hour Party People was beautiful in its ugliness, but The Look of Love is often dull in its gloss. Coogan brings his A game to a character who is not quite as deep as Control writer Matt Greenhalgh’s script wants to believe he is. We never truly get inside Raymond’s head, and he is never quite as morally repugnant nor as fiendishly brilliant as the drama would hope. He is however regularly amusing, and Coogan’s rapport with Chris Addison as his number two keeps much of the film aloft.
Anna Friel plays spurned wife and saucy MILF with equal relish. Cameos range from the superb: David Walliams’s vicar; to the downright disappointing: The Inbetweeners’ Simon Bird wearing a beard so false you can practically touch the blobs of glue holding it on. What makes The Look of Love a moderate success is how well it captures the shifting styles and attitudes of Britain over more than three decades, but also in the chemistry between Coogan and Poots. As unlikely an onscreen father and daughter pairing as there might be, the two find a tragic sweetness in their decidedly creepy relationship, that makes for uncomfortable yet touching viewing.
The least satisfying of Winterbottom and Coogan’s collaborations so far, The Look of Love is still a fine production that’s only real failing was believing its subject was a more interesting character than he truly was.