For more than 10 years, prolific British director Michael Winterbottom and comic actor Steve Coogan have collaborated in some of the funnier, more penetrating looks at the seedier side of British pop culture. Coogan has played raffish music impresario Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” (2002), he’s played himself in “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” (2005), and himself again in “The Trip” (2010).
In “The Look of Love,” the director and actor combine for a biopic of the British porn king and real estate mogul Paul Raymond, a sharpie who rose from putting on nudie reviews in Soho to become the richest man in England — but, frankly, the guy just isn’t very interesting. Although Raymond’s career extended over five decades of London sleaze, decadence, and celebrity, neither director nor actor provide much insight into the man or his times, not to mention the significance of Raymond’s prime product: high-class smut. This is no “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996), or even “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (2005).
The film opens, portentously enough, near the end, as Raymond returns home from the funeral of his daughter and would-be heir, Debbie (Imogen Poots), to watch the tape of an interview with him and Debbie. This brings on extended, intermittent flashbacks, beginning with a black and white return to the ’50s when he and his then wife, Jean (Anna Friel), broke into the limelight with their “Cirque Nu de Paris,” in which near-naked models stood motionless (the law allowed naked people on stage, as long as they didn’t move) during a lion tamer act.
But when nudity became legal in the ’60s (acknowledged, perhaps, by the film’s switch to color), Raymond expanded his interests to legit productions such as “Pyjama Tops.” When a critic castigated the show for gratuitous nudity, Raymond proudly blurbed quotes from the review in ads. He made millions, which he wisely invested in real estate, pointing out to his daughter that nothing grants someone respectability like property.
Other advice he dishes out to Debbie proves less credible, as when, after catching her doing lines in the lavatory with the editor of one of his skin magazines, he admonishes her only to use “the good stuff.” Winterbottom shares much of the “good stuff” from his subject’s life, which consists of business meetings at stripper bars, auditioning naked girls for his next show (one of whom, Amber a.k.a Fiona, played by Tamsin Egerton, replaces his wife as his paramour and partner), attending the shows’ premieres, and then retiring to his pad with two or three women from the cast to romp on a big bed.
Over the years the only sign of change or development is his hairstyle (eventually he looks like Gene Wilder in “Young Frankenstein”), otherwise he remains joyless and unenlightened until tragedy strikes, and he learns nothing. Once in a while Coogan will seem to break character with a joke or an imitation of Sean Connery or Marlon Brando, an encouraging reminder that he will be returning as his old persona in Winterbottom’s sequel to “The Trip,” “The Trip to Italy,” expected next year.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.