The fourth collaboration between actor Steve Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom is much like their first: Both The Look of Love and 2002's 24 Hour Party People are antic, self-conscious film bios about impresarios on the fringes of showbiz — soft porn and punk rock, respectively. But somehow the new movie, though it doesn't skimp on the nudity, the cocaine or the Britpop, is the blander of the two.
Initiated by Coogan, who plays the central role, the film sketches the life and career of the late Paul Raymond, labeled "the richest man in Britain" in 1992. He came to own huge chunks of central London, notably in Soho, but was born in Liverpool and entered the biz with a routine mind-reading act.
The movie opens with a scenery-shop's worth of framing devices: The young Raymond introduces himself, the old Raymond chats about real estate with his young granddaughter, the middle-aged Raymond muses on the fate of his deceased daughter. An animated credits sequence conjures the early 1960s, and a black-and-white prologue introduces Raymond's early productions, including a lion-taming show with two near-naked women as incongruous props.
All this probably played better in Britain, where Raymond is known as the man who broke the pop-culture nudity barrier. American viewers may find themselves wanting a little more context, even if it's easy to understand the bottoms-line appeal of Raymond's striptease revues and girlie magazines.
That's the side of the once-notorious entrepreneur the filmmakers seem to prefer: They include nothing in their narrative about acquiring or managing a property empire, but plenty about Pyjama Tops, a stage comedy whose dialogue suffered in competition with the three naked women swimming in a glass tank onstage. (The reviews were terrible; the grosses were wonderful.)
Once the stage has been thusly set, the story concentrates on Raymond's relationship with three women: His wife, Jean (Anna Friel); his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots); and his multi-named mistress, who'll ultimately settle on the nom de nudité Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton).
A full partner at first, Jean supports her husband and accepts his compulsive philandering. She demands a divorce, however, when Raymond moves in permanently with Fiona, an au naturel model and actress who becomes a popular sex columnist for her beau's magazine, Men Only. Ultimately, Fiona herself will tire of Raymond's relentless quest for new bed mates.
The only supportive child among the mogul's three offspring, Debbie wants to be a singer, so Raymond mounts an expensive revue to showcase her talents. When that flops, Debbie accepts her dad's new plan: to groom her as his successor. That scheme gets undermined when Men Only editor Tony Power (Chris Addison) introduces her to cocaine.
Scripter Matt Greenhalgh wrote the screenplay for 2007's Control, a more sober account of some of the events chronicled in 24 Hour Party People. But this time he goes for frisky, not grave; his treatment of major conflicts and losses is as blithe as Raymond's rejoinders to earnest reporters.
And while the principal performances are engaging, none of the actors goes any deeper than Coogan, who specializes in vain, glib men who use quips to deflect genuine emotion. His Raymond gets off a few good lines, sometimes borrowed from Oscar Wilde, but reveals little.
Winterbottom's 2004 film 9 Songs is the most sexually explicit picture ever to get general release in Britain. Oddly, given its subject matter, The Look of Love turns out to be much tamer; as Raymond's shows and magazines become raunchier, the director sidesteps or actively censors the steamiest material.
That seems a little coy in a movie that chronicles the march of British civilization from g-strings to flared genitalia. But it suits the filmmakers' decision to downplay character study and social commentary in favor of another heedless whirl through Swinging '60s London.