Perhaps the most baffling aspect of The Look Of Love, Michael Winterbottom’s portrait of British pornographer Paul Raymond, is the fact that star Steve Coogan was the driving force behind its creation. Vanity projects have their shortcomings, but, at least in most cases, they give an actor a chance to explore new directions, to play roles that others would never have thought to cast them in (sometimes with good reason). Even when the result is a trainwreck, it’s an engrossing one.
The Look Of Love, however, has a hole where that performance ought to be. Not only is Coogan not pushing himself, he often seems barely engaged, playing Raymond as a man of less than life size. In Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, he proved that he could anchor a tale of period excess with a colorful central portrayal, so perhaps the idea was to head in the opposite direction: to play Raymond as someone who, in spite of his notoriety, was a businessman like any other, one who seemed to take more pride in his real-estate holdings than his nude clubs and porno mags. But Matt Greenhalgh’s script, which amounts to a series of headline-grabbing vignettes, doesn’t develop any of the other characters sufficiently to let them fill in the interest Coogan’s Raymond fails to supply. The movie is a character study in search of a character.
As his empire grows, Coogan is surrounded by ever-greater luxuries. Even though wife Anna Friel consents to an open marriage, he falls in love with the star (Tamsin Egerton) of a racy stage play he’s produced—a paper-thin pretext to present nudity onstage outside of a nightclub. The excess even spreads to his daughter (Imogen Poots), a would-be singer who gets prominent placement in his revues despite an obvious lack of talent. (Evidently running his various empires left him no time to watch Citizen Kane.) The constant blows to her ego, coupled with the ready availability of drugs, sets the stage for the movie’s final downward slide, following the trajectory of roughly every movie about showbiz excess ever made.
Winterbottom is famously prolific, and his loose style can pay off when he’s working on something like The Trip, which is episodic by nature. But The Look Of Love needed a script that did more than connect the dots, and a director who took the time to shape the story and the performances. Winterbottom may have made worse movies, but perhaps none that felt so utterly superfluous.