Steve Coogan stares directly at the camera with one eyebrow raised and says, "My name is Paul Raymond. Welcome to my world of erotica." When The Look of Love opens in this way, it's hard not to recall Coogan's first collaboration with director Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People. In that film, Coogan played Tony Wilson and frequently broke the fourth wall to offer his commentary on events as we watched them unfold. But The Look of Love is not a film in a similar vein to that portrait of the Manchester music scene, and this early moment of self-awareness is not representative of the film's subsequent tone. In fact, it is more suggestive of a picture that doesn't seem sure what exactly it wants to be, or what story it wants to tell, from one scene to the next.
This lack of a coherent focus continues with the film's opening scenes, which are set in the early 1960s and are shot in black-and-white, although Winterbottom makes no attempt to impose similar distinctive aesthetics on any of the subsequent decades that his film covers. At this time, Paul Raymond was a touring coastal towns with his saucy variety act, and thirty years later his sex and property empire made him the richest man in Britain. This is undoubtedly a remarkable rise and compelling films have been built out of less interesting figures, but Winterbottom and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh aren't disciplined enough to focus on the key areas of the tale and to dig beneath the flashy surface.
The strongest thread is the relationship between Raymond and his daughter Debbie, played with an affecting fragility by Imogen Poots. Debbie was the child with whom Raymond had the deepest bond (his son left for America with his wife after the breakup of their marriage) and he had planned to hand the running of his various businesses on to her before she died from a drug overdose in 1992. Winterbottom occasionally cuts from the narrative to scenes of an ageing Raymond sitting alone, watching footage of his lost daughter, lost in his memories and his grief. It's a big stretch for Coogan to bring the necessary gravitas to this role (the ghosts of Tony Wilson, Alan Partridge and Tony Ferrino are never fully dispelled), but the moments in which he genuinely seems to connect with Poots are where the film briefly takes on another dimension. When Raymond has to face the fact that his daughter is not talented enough to lead the show he wrote for her, the scenes between them carry a real emotional weight. The fact that the film's title comes from a song that Debbie sings indicates that this is the heart of the story, but it's something that Winterbottom only flits in and out of, as he gets derailed by other, less rewarding, details.
The Look of Love is a maddeningly uneven picture. When it isn't squeezing in distracting comic cameos (Stephen Fry, Dara O'Briain, Matt Lucas and David Walliams) or unilluminating montages, it's indulging rote scenes of hedonistic excess that feel like little more than a watered-down Boogie Nights. Potentially intriguing aspects of Raymond's tale are left frustratingly unexplored, such as his discovery of a son from a previous relationship, which is raised and then forgotten about in a single scene. The film hops along in its energetic but episodic fashion, as if we should congratulate the filmmakers for touching upon so many aspects of the Paul Raymond story instead of questioning whether they have sufficiently explored any of it.
Michael Winterbottom is a director whose refusal to be pinned down and categorised has resulted in a body of work that is wonderfully eclectic in its style and content. But he can't quite find the right approach here, and the result is a fleetingly enjoyable but ultimately shallow and unfocused biopic. Winterbottom directed one of the all-time great London-based films with his 1999 drama Wonderland, and there was certainly potential for another landmark capital picture in this study of "The King of Soho," but the only real point of interest for Londoners lies in spotting the familiar locations that act as backdrop to the disappointingly mundane story.