Lust shares the stage with love in “The Look of Love,” Michael Winterbottom’s snappy and mildly comedic biographical drama about Paul Raymond, a businessman who made history by opening Britain’s first strip club in 1958. Money is also very much in the spotlight. Raymond — a small-time nightclub performer with a mind-reading act who went on to become a successful real estate magnate and publisher of girlie magazines — was, by 1992, Britain’s wealthiest man.
Maybe he really was a mind-reader. “People liked looking at pretty girls, and liked it even more if they had no clothes on,” deadpans the movie’s subject, played by Steve Coogan.
Known as a comedian, Coogan turns in a fine dramatic performance in a role that calls for as much actual acting as wisecracking. If his character — England’s answer to Hugh Hefner — comes across as glib at times, allowing Coogan to pull out his Sean Connery and Marlon Brando vocal impressions here and there, that’s probably not utterly inappropriate to the role. Raymond was something of a showman.
Still, the part is a serious one, and Coogan, in his fourth collaboration with Winterbottom, steps up to the challenge.
The nature of that challenge is expressed in the title of the film, which despite its tawdry subject matter has more to do more with emotions than hormones. At its heart, “The Look of Love” is about the relationship between Paul Raymond and his daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots), whom the screenplay, written by Matt Greenhalgh (“Nowhere Boy”), imagines as the one great love of Paul’s life.
Not that there was ever any shortage of women. Debbie’s mother, Jean (Anna Friel), puts up with her husband’s serial philandering until he moves in with his actress/model/sex columnist girlfriend, Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton). At the time of Jean and Paul’s divorce, her settlement was the largest in British history.
That milestone is one of several that the film glosses over, along with references to Paul’s business facing obscenity and prostitution charges. Those events are alluded to in montages of news reports, but the legal implication of those accusations — as well as their ultimate outcome — is never explained.
More attention is paid to the personal, including Debbie’s wedding, breast cancer and drug abuse. Winterbottom’s film lays her addiction squarely at her father’s feet. In addition to shepherding Debbie’s abortive singing career, Daddy also was an enabler, doing drugs with her, in an example of some of the worst parenting ever committed to film.
And yet, Paul loves his little girl, in his way. If the film suggests that Paul put Debbie on a collision course, it also makes it clear that there’s a real bond there. Despite a light tone to much of the movie — parts of which play like a sex farce — there’s a foreboding of real pain and tragedy. In fact, the film begins with Paul, in his later years, receiving a piece of unspecified heavy news, before flashing back to his youth and moving forward. Throughout the film, the camera cuts to that sad face of his, just to remind us that something bad is coming.
Until then, there is a lot of partying, drug use and wild sex, including scenes of Paul in bed with Fiona and a couple of other women. (For the record, Richmond has denied that these mini-orgies ever happened.) At times, you may find yourself wondering whether Paul is the sex-obsessed one here, or Winterbottom. Though unrated, “The Look of Love” has much more nudity than one typically finds in an R-rated film. It actually starts to cloy after a while, in the way that even the most, er, glamorous men’s magazines sometimes can.
In that sense, “The Look of Love” calls to mind that old line about Playboy, a publication that some have claimed, however facetiously, to read for the articles, not the pictures. “The Look of Love” also is filled with acres and acres of naked flesh, but it’s the storytelling that keeps you engaged.
Unrated. At the West End Cinema. Contains sex, obscenity, drug use, smoking and plentiful bare skin. 101 minutes.