“I want to live a normal life,” Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton) says to her lover, Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan), the famously wealthy smut-peddler-cum-entrepreneur she plans to leave. “But normal lives are for normal people,” he rebuffs. And perhaps the biggest tragedy for the megalomaniacal British antihero at the center of Michael Winterbottom’s affable The Look of Love is that he’s actually quite “normal” by biopic standards, embodying the now familiar and tired cliché of being rich and famous, and as such is predisposed to drugs and alienation. Winterbottom appears to be unaware of how uninteresting Raymond’s life story is, anchoring him at the center of a four-decade-spanning empire-building tale that yields little surprise beyond the occasional aesthetic pizzazz. There’s more substance abuse than actual substance in what may be the most polished and conventional film of the director’s career.
The Look of Love observes Raymond’s career from 1958, when he ran a successful, quasi-sophisticated topless club in SoHo known as Raymond Revuebar, to 1992, when he was tormented by the death of his darling daughter; just a year before he would claim the title of the Richest Man in Britain. In order to organize the breadth of Raymond’s life, the film is structured as a sort of triptych, focusing closely on his role as husband, lothario, and father to three highly significant women in his life. The man liked to incorporate his personal life into his professional, and all three women played a role in his business as well. His loyal and open-minded first wife, Jean (Anna Friel), often assisted in Raymond’s kitschy vaudevillian acts, yet is abruptly jilted when Paul produces a massively expensive sex farce and is smitten with one of his leggy, buxom actresses. That young vixen and muse, Fiona Richmond (née Amber), becomes his long-term lover and serves as the pin-up sex columnist for Raymond’s immensely popular magazine Men Only. And lastly, and most preciously, is Raymond’s daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots), who’s the victim of Trust Fund Disease—an entitled yet sensitive young girl who wants to be in show business with her father and ends up with a cocaine addiction.
Winterbottom willingly relinquishes control to frequent collaborator Coogan, allowing the actor to run with the fairly tepid material, which is often upstaged by the textured art direction and sprightly, time-appropriate score. Raymond marks another notch on Coogan’s belt of self-absorbed pricks, and the sly actor, never one to waste a moment without reminding the audience of his character’s brutal narcissism, trots out his typically sarcastic brand of embedded humor. The frequent Winterbottom collaborator ad-libs circles around his scene partners, tossing off his trademark aloofness, but he’s unable to unearth any truly compelling qualities about Raymond and is seldom the most magnetic force on the screen. Instead of imbuing the pompous billionaire with bravado, Coogan’s performance (which awkwardly includes random, throwaway impersonations of Marlon Brando and Sean Connery—an irritating Coogan specialty) makes it increasingly difficult to parse exactly what’s so provocative about this iconic man, as his rise and fall, exacerbated by his fame-whoring decisions to act purely out of self-interest, is hardly unique.
The pernicious allure of artifice consistently pervades this jaunty yet thematically sterile production. This preoccupation with façades is most overtly displayed in the idea of name recreation, most pointedly when Raymond occasionally points out that his real name is Geoffrey Quinn, and when his girlfriend changes hers from Amber, already a fake name, to Fiona Richmond in a humorous drunken nightclub scene. For a film about a figure of national controversy, however, The Look of Love is decidedly apolitical; only two very brief scenes even confront the idea of whether Paul’s work is demeaning toward women or could be considered “pornography.” Even worse, these instances of moderate inquiry exist without an afterthought—contemplative moments are whisked away by the filmmakers to make room for one of the nearly half-dozen flashy photo-shoot montages.
There’s a recurring joke in which Raymond, in moments of celebration, offers to buy champagne for all. He often skips a beat and then continues, “house champagne, that is.” With its softened edges, bland aftertaste, and watered-down distillation of Raymond’s life and career, The Look of Love represents the house champagne of biographical cinema.