I am a fan of most things Michael Winterbottom and especially when those things collide with actor Steve Coogan. Naturally you can imagine how excited I was to find out that his latest project, The Look of Love, not only stars Coogan, but was also set to premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. As soon as I arrived in Park City, I was determined to get my hands on a ticket to one of the screenings. And I’m happy I did because, while not the best movie I saw at Sundance nor the best Winterbottom film ever to grace the silver screen, The Look of Love proved to be a valiant attempt by a great and yet somehow still underrated director.
The Look of Love is a biopic that focuses on the life of Paul Raymond (Coogan), tracking the man who was dubbed “The King of Soho,” as he becomes one of the richest men in England at the time of his death in 2008. Raymond achieved this by opening the first strip club in the United Kingdom, developing a soft (and hard, disguised as soft) core porn empire and buying as much real estate as his heart desired. Co-starring Imogen Poots as Raymond’s misguided daughter, Debbie, who was all set to take over his empire until she died of a drug overdose, and Anna Friel as Jean, his forgiving wife and then bitter ex-wife. The Look of Love also features a quick appearance by UK funny man Stephen Fry. As the biopic develops, documenting Raymond’s life, the viewer sees how Raymond runs his (and England’s) first strip club, Raymond Revuebar. He masks the club as a private bar to avoid being shut down. With Raymond Revuebar becomes a wild success, the viewer is made privy to how Raymond starts buying loads of property in London’s Soho area, decides to leave his wife and, actually, his youngest child—which, to be honest, is not entirely made clear until a later scene—for the much younger, much taller Fiona Richmond. He also creates and publishes his first soft-core porn magazine “Men Only” and develops an incredibly close, complicated and dysfunctional relationship with his daughter Debbie.
That sure is a lot of story to cover, right? Well, The Look of Love features all of that and those are just the highlights. But, leave it to a biopic to try to get everything in and while The Look of Love is most definitely a biopic, it manages to overcome some of the problems I find face most biopics. First, and most probably foremost, this biopic manages to contain a certain amount of heart. I find with many biopics an over-eagerness exists on the part of the filmmaker to verifiably document every last thing that happened in the subject’s life and that this valiant attempt at “inventorying” often leaves the film with a overbearing feeling that can only be described as, “Huh, okay, so?” Well, The Look of Love manages to at least partially overcome this (Can anyone say Ray? Anyone?). The movie manages to be both informative and entertaining. That being said, The Look of Love is not without problems. I left the theater still a little confused as to why this story was being told. I found myself asking, “Why tell the story of this man and why now?” Yes, there is an obvious answer in that Paul Raymond was not only an interesting subject but he was also a powerful man. Still, I am not entirely convinced that having an interesting and, even, captivating subject qualifies a film as a great biopic. Rather, I am just not sure what The Look of Love added to the story of Paul Raymond aside from the fact that it brought more public attention to it. Yes, The Look of Love depicts a complicated man, one constantly plagued by his past decisions, his character and his child rearing skills, but nowadays that hardly constitutes groundbreaking stuff in a biopic. I did not leave the theater thinking, “Huh, okay, so?” But, I also did not leave the theater totally convinced of the film’s necessity.
This would not be a fair review, however, if I did not stress how entertaining The Look of Love is. While that is partially due to the nature of the subject, Winterbottom does a great job creating a movie that is jam-packed with story arcs. Every time I looked, there was something new being revealed about Raymond’s character, action or decisions. I was never bored or even felt “out of” the movie story. I was right there with Raymond as he is slapped on the wrist with a huge fine for crossing the line from soft-core to real-life porn in “Men’s Only;” as he realizes when his daughter Debbie is not as talented on stage as his mistress; and as he finds out his Debbie has overdosed.
A lot of credit, too, has to be given to Steve Coogan for his portrayal of Raymond. So fully did Coogan embrace his role that I never once thought to myself, “Oh hey, that’s Steve Coogan playing Paul Raymond.” No, I found myself convinced the entire time of Raymond’s validity, and now if I know that if anyone brings up Paul Raymond in a discussion, I will always associate him with the depiction in this film.
Finally, I think there needs to be some reference to the fact that even though the characters presented in The Look of Love are wealthy, over-indulged and often without a strong moral compass, they remain, oddly, likable. The viewer gets the feeling that, while they are incredibly complicated, they are also misguided. This is especially true in Winterbottom’s depiction of Debbie who is, perhaps, the most complicated character in the film. Both Winterbottom and Poots do a great job presenting this complex character who, under different guidance or performance could easily be hated and despised by the viewer. That would have affected the film for the worse since Paul’s relationship with Debbie is at the heart of The Look of Love.
While Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love is not his best work, I am happy I saw it. Would I have felt differently if I had rented it? Probably not. But still, The Look of Love is definitely worth seeing, just maybe on your own time.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 Out of 5 Stars