Sunday, July 28, 2013

Squalor: The Look of Love

There's a small corner of my DVD collection accidentally devoted to collaborations between director Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan.  All three of 'em start with T's (or numbers spelled with T's) and are filed away within inches of one another: The Trip, Tristram Shandy, and 24 Hour Party People.  I love these films, I love Coogan in these films, I respect Winterbottom because of his involvement with these films (specifically).  Consequently, I was prepared to like The Look of Love quite a bit.  Coogan and Winterbottom tend to be a productive creative pairing, and the prospect of a period comedy following a real life sleaze impresario sounded pretty spectacular, but the results are lackluster; jumbled, stretched, and -even with dozens of prancing showgirls- bland. Maybe they're cursed by snubbing the letter 'T', maybe they need a Rob Brydon cameo as a good luck charm, or, you know, maybe they really needed to just fix up the script and keep their eyes on the story and not the pinups.
The script loses focus quickly, drifting off course into handsome visuals, rich costuming, and small moments in a dramatic tableaux instead of actively accounting for its protagonist.  We're swept along through several decades in the life of Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan), a controversial millionaire entrepreneur playboy who's presented as the UK's answer to Hugh Hefner.  From burlesque acts to publishing exploits, we're made privy to the rise of a raunch-culture god.  Now, as mentioned, I'd not heard of Raymond prior to watching the film, and have no way of accurately gauging whether or not The Look of Love hits on something positive or negative in interpreting Raymond's persona. What I do know, though, is that the film opts for a point of entry that proves problematic.  Look of Love is bookended by the premature death of Raymond's troubled daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots). In the opening minutes we meet a middle aged Raymond as he grapples with the loss, and throughout the film we return time and again to strange, tonally off-putting reminders that her struggles with addiction will end badly, that he is at least partially responsible, and that our tale has a tragic end.  When that's hanging over the story, it's a bit tough to keep swinging.
But, see, that's the problem with The Look of Love. It's too dramatic to be a comedy, too airy to be a drama, too cut-up to be a solid story.  There's no way to cut Debbie out of the film, and she needs to be there to make Paul Raymond at all a sympathetic figure. Paul and Debbie are an unconventional, unhealthy example of a father/daughter relationship.  Paul does little to intervene in Debbie's destructive decision making, and the two frequently party together. In fact, he draws her wholly into his world. In his nudie stage-shows, she's the clothed "star": innocent, weirdly wholesome, but entombed in a backstage life of coke, promiscuity, and (let's face it) screwed up perceptions of how relationships work between men and women.  Winterbottom does his best to find meaning in Debbie and Paul's familial bond. They're close friends, proud to share blood, and Debbie makes much of her father's prominent place in her life. So, what we get is a film that turns into this weird daddy/daughter biopic about an enterprising asshole's guilt-trip in the wake of his daughter's demise. And you're thinking: sounds legit, what's wrong with it?  Uh...we frequently lose track of Debbie, we always feel like we're watching Steve Coogan instead of Paul Raymond, and nobody involved knows whether this is a comedy or a drama.
  What The Look of Love winds up doing then is simply showing a lot of skin. Coogan is given some unexpectedly poignant moments (which he's alright in), but mostly he's playing another in a line of the self-aware jerks he does best.  Counter to him is the often much too sincere Imogen Poots, who looks every bit the 70s queen but whose relative soulfulness runs directly counter to Coogan's wink wink nudge nudge moments spent in threesomes, soft core shoots, and publicity stunts. There's no balance, and as we stumble rapidly through the three decades of material Winterbottom has chosen to cram in here, that imbalance makes for a confusing filmwatching experience. Is this a jaunty amorality tale? A cautionary indictment? A shredded take on Boogie Nights? A biopic at all? The loose form that worked with 24 Hour Party People, et al is lost here. There's nary a trace of metafictionality or snarky attention to the camera. Raymond isn't leading us, Coogan isn't playing a version of himself, the story isn't based on pre-postmodern absurdism. So, the thing falls apart under its own weight. Great costumes, great sets, great music, but...where does it lead?


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