While stylishly capturing the verve, exotica, and free-spirited mojo of swinging '60s London, uber-prolific English director Michael Winterbottom's portrait of legendary U.K. smut impresario Paul Raymond is otherwise a shallow misfire.
An all-too-familiar rise-and-fall story of opulence, wealth and arrogance, the picture begins in the 1950s, in black and white, and chronicles Raymond (Steve Coogan) as he starts to rule the red light district with gentleman's clubs, before he became known as "The King of Soho." While the clubs are questionable by conservative English standards, they're also considered chic and alluring and above some of the tasteless smutty sex parlors of Soho. While an affront to the sexual mores of the status quo, the publicity helps Raymond rake in the riches toute suite. His wife (Anna Friel) seems to be more than happy with his growing wealth and their expanding mansions and she's even tolerant of his free-love ways as the movie moves into the 1960s, and then begins to pop with kaleidoscopic, swirling color.
As the entrepreneur's scandalous empire expands, along with his need to keep up his fortune, his standards also begin to quickly fall. What were once copacetic gentleman's clubs quickly devolve into tacky smut dens replete with velvet and classless decor. Raymond's misguided attempts to get into the world of theater are also wildly crude, and little more than gratuitous excuses to show naked girls in shows with the thinnest of narratives. What's quickly revealed is that Raymond never had taste or standards and ironically, his world devolves vile and unsexy pornography. A would-be Oscar Wilde-esque figure who even liberally quotes from the poet – "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" – he's much less clever and much more shallow.
Chronicling Raymond's life from the 1950s through the 1990s, "The Look Of Love" is almost two pictures. The frothy and bubbly first half that's like the silly tickle of champagne as we chart his rise, and the sordid and depraved second act that's packed to the gills with drugs, excess, sex, orgies, failed relationships, struggling businesses and worse. Raymond quickly drops his wife circa the mid '60s for a sexpot showgirl (the gorgeous Tamsin Egerton), and while she becomes a quick surrogate for fun three-ways, cocaine and more, she eventually grows weary of Raymond's perennially and inveterately hedonistic manner. Charming actress Imogen Poots plays Raymond's daughter, but her role is there to essentially service the idea of what a monstrously shitty and horrible father the smut peddler was.
While Winterbottom's movie initially moves with a lot of energy, life and flair, complete with a hip and cocktail-shaken soundtrack of Burt Bacharach, T-Rex, Donovan, and various silky and lounge-y exotica, the picture quickly comes off like a comically dressed caricature of the '70s male – all loud, tacky suits, overgrown hair, ridiculous mustache and counterfeit cool. It's all style over substance which there is almost none. While Coogan is decent in the dramatic sections of the picture, his eyebrow-raised, rascally sexhound character isn't exactly a huge stretch for him either.
As an avowed member of team Winterbottom – his hits and usually-always interesting misses and all – it pains this writer to pan this picture. Winterbottom, like an English Soderbergh, is not only a quickly-pivoting chameleon without a brand (by choice of course), he seems perfectly willing to fail and experiment with genres and forms, but usually, even the biggest misfires have something interesting or substantial in them worth experiencing. But "The Look Of Love" just has zero characters to sympathize with or empathize for and therefore it's often hard to care. The entire world is completely shallow, and while Raymond is effortlessly charming (thanks to Coogan), we, like his wife and girlfriends, grow tired of his antics pretty quickly. At 105 minutes, "The Look Of Love" also overstays its welcome and probably would have been slightly more tolerable at 90 minutes or less. These vapid characters aren't people we want to root for, let alone spend much time with.
As always, one has to ask: what's the appeal of documenting a world like this? For Winterbottom it appears to be the fascination in a King Midas-like story of tragedy; a man who has it all, endless wealth, fortune, fame, celebrity and more, but in the end has nothing of personal value to show for it. He's a hollow shell. While that's an interesting story in theory, one can argue, it's hard to be absorbed and care when the selfish, narcissistic lead was always hollow and soulless at his core. There's nothing tragic about Raymond. He's just pathetic. [D+]