It would be too much to call Paul Raymond the Hugh Hefner of England; if only because Hef never owned that much real estate. But in many other ways, Raymond’s life story, as shown in Michael Winterbottom’s flashbulb-riddled biopic, shows a definite kinship with Hef’s. They were both kids from straight-laced backgrounds who became erotic publishing and nightlife impresarios, as well as standard-bearers in the fight for (profitable, highly profitable) sexual liberation in the 1960s and ‘70s. Just like Hef, Raymond claimed that he didn’t publish pornography; what he was selling was a lifestyle. Unfortunately, lifestyle is just about all that The Look of Love has going for it.
Steve Coogan plays Raymond. It’s the actor’s fourth collaboration with Winterbottom (24-Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and The Trip) and easily the pair’s least successful. The screenplay, by Matt Greenhalgh, is more of a connect-the-dots hop and skip through some highlights in Raymond’s life than a story about a man who gains the world while possibly losing his soul. Winterbottom packs the screen with redolent period detail and zipping camera movements. Nothing stays still for long. We jump from the black-and-white 1950s, where Raymond and his first wife Jean (Anna Friel) run a comparatively tame adult theater (circus acts that are just excuses to show topless assistants and the like) to the ever-more swinging decades that followed, where he runs a more openly erotic nightclub in London’s West End and publishes a nudie magazine; both make him incredibly rich. Through it all, Raymond and most of those around him remain pretty unflappable; there’s only a lengthening of sideburns and shifting songs on the soundtrack to signal the passing of the years. There’s speed and humor, but little sense that much is at stake. It’s like a low-key Boogie Nights without the attention paid to the business side of things.
Coogan’s Raymond is a slick, silver-tongued operator. Like most of the actor’s creations, this Raymond is eager to entertain and be liked; there’s a searching expression to him as he’s always looking for the next angle, the next joke. He manages the impressive feat of indulging in every hedonistic activity possible — whiffing up Scarface-sized lines of cocaine, filling his bed with as many naked women as possible at one time — and still managing to look like a complete gentleman while doing it. His effortless elegance occasionally betrays a critical inner coldness, particularly in the way he disposes with family members once they become inconvenient. But like Raymond himself, the film has little time for that. On to the next sexy business venture or threesome!
Among the collateral damage here are the women in Raymond’s life, particularly his longtime girlfriend Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton) and over-indulged daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots). Winterbottom and Coogan are so enamored with Raymond’s joie de vivre and capturing the fleshpots of Soho, though, that they don’t allow the film to truly register much else. As usual, Coogan is instantly engaging, always ready with an impersonation or a deadpan line reading. But in tackling a fascinating character like Raymond, who didn’t just change sexual mores in the United Kingdom and die one of the richest men in the world, Coogan may have just turned him into another Steve Coogan character. This may make The Look of Love watchable enough, but it hardly makes it necessary.