For those that missed Michael Winterbottom’s latest film from the Toronto Film Festival, no worries. That being because he has a new film already in time for Sundance just four months later. As prolific directors goes he is probably matched only by Joe Swanberg in his ability to crank out film after film before the last one had the chance to reach the next stage of its digital life. There is a common joke amongst those familiar with Winterbottom’s output that he needs to “get out there and work more.” After seeing his latest period piece, I am certain that we can all agree he could use a break.
The life of Paul Raymond is probably a fascinating one to those of us who never made millions of dollars through the titillation of natural expression of boob exposure. Steve Coogan found him fascinating enough to bring the idea to Winterbottom of playing him sometime after his death in 2008 and here, at least, that part of the dream has been realized. Coogan indeed plays Paul Raymond who made a fortune through burlesque clubs and theater runs more known for its skin than their content. He is a serial philanderer but seems to have an understanding with his wife (Anna Friel) about his late nights away from home. That is until he hooks up with young ingénue, Fiona (Tamsin Egerton), and leaves behind his family while still maintaining a close relationship with his daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots).
This is pretty much the extent of what an audience will come to learn about who Paul is. It is all surface and no substance with the film basically just giving us a highlight reel of events in his life rather than breakdown exactly why he’s just not another rich guy with a broken family. Is there a motivation other than money? Nothing in his sexual dalliances suggest him to be anything but a strict meat-and-potatoes man – with maybe an extra slice thrown in. Who is this man other than someone who has no problem giving his daughter a whiff of cocaine during labor?
Winterbottom opens the film with the glorious assumption that we may be headed for another 24-Hour Party People with Coogan as Raymond breaking the fourth wall and introducing himself to the audience before giving us a personal guided tour of his life. That thought is short-lived as it is literally an introduction into a flash-forward and then back into an early section of his life presented in black-and-white. That stylistic choice is also quashed faster than you can say “there’s no place like home.” Other than as an opportunity for Coogan to do a couple of his signature impressions, there is nowhere for his talent to flourish, with more depth and emotion being paid to the version of himself that he portrayed in the director’s TV series-turned-feature, The Trip.
Unlike other “smut peddler” films like The People vs. Larry Flynt and Boogie Nights, there is neither a beating heart beneath the boobs nor the social context for its relevancy or controversy. There’s a courtroom battle (with a brief cameo by Stephen Fry) and the occasional “can we show that” moment for his magazine editors. But The Look of Love forgets all the other senses when it comes to getting what makes Paul Raymond so fascinating, desensitizing us to caring even less about him than the 60th breast that flashes across the screen. Frankly, there are easier ways to see boobs.