“My name is Paul Raymond,” boasts Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) in the kitsch ‘70s title sequence of Michael Winterbottom’s The Look Of Love, “Welcome to my world of erotica!” What follows, despite this bold assertion and the acres of nubile female flesh on show, is 100 of the most unerotic minutes you’ve spent in the cinema since that screening of Schindler’s List you accidentally took Viagra before, as Michael Winterbottom sucks all the fun out of a life of sex, drugs, philandering, greed and tragedy in order to serve up Knowing Me, Knowing Nude: Alan Partridge’s Boobs and Bolivian Flake Adventure.
Reuniting for the fourth time with director Michael Winterbottom, Alan Partridge once again delivers the same performance he did as Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People or as Steve Coogan in Winterbottom’s The Trip, playing pornographer, theatre impresario, property tycoon and self-styled ‘King of Soho’ Paul Raymond as essentially a boring, self-absorbed cracker of painfully bad jokes. All that’s missing is Rob Brydon’s awful impersonations. Beginning in 1992 with a shattered Raymond mourning the death of beloved daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) and watching a TV profile of himself on video, we flash back to the black and white (literally) ‘50s and are off on a whirlwind tour of Raymond’s life and times as he spends the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s building an empire based on selling women’s wobbly bits through strip clubs, theatre farces and jazz mags, in the process cheating on common-as-muck wife Jean (Anna Friel) with posh glamour model and vicar’s daughter Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton), having threesomes with models and showgirls and snorting blizzards of cocaine with daughter Debbie before her inevitable and tragic drug overdose and death and his retreat from the public eye.
A glib, superficial retread of Milos Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt that lacks that film’s depth, intelligence and humour, The Look Of Love never really knows what it wants to be. Constantly chopping between tones and styles, one minute giving us larger-than-life Carry On-style caricature, the next straight bio-pic, Winterbottom never allows us to get to know or care about his characters. His vision of Raymond as a Midas-like figure gaining the world but losing his soul is rather soulless and, while light on laughs, feels like it’s played for laughs. It doesn’t help that almost every significant male role is played by a British comic actor, all pitching their performances at the end of the pier with David Walliams good fun as Soho’s resident naughty vicar, Stephen Fry as a Lord Melchett-esque barrister and Matt Lucas shockingly awful in his one scene as the legendary Divine. Also terrible is Inbetweener Simon Bird who plays Debbie’s husband (the bloke who wrote the Shake n’ Vac jingle) although a gleefully obnoxious Chris Addison steals every scene he’s in as Dave Lee Travis impersonator and coke fiend scud book editor, Tony Power.
While Steve Coogan once again plays Alan Partridge, this time with exposed chest hair and a fur coat, the best performances in the film come from the women at its heart. Anna Friel hasn’t had a part this good in years and tears into it like it’s Kobe beef, her Jean is a funny, ferocious perma-tanned cougar while Tamsin Egerton is sexy and smart as that most wholesome of British sexpots, Fiona Richmond, and she and her pert, frequently displayed bottom, are two of the best things about the film though Imogen Poots once again dazzles as Raymond’s indulged and tragic daughter Debbie, bringing a wounded bunny vulnerability and real pathos to a role that ill serves the real Debbie. While she may not have been much of a singer and daddy may have bankrolled a show for her, there was a lot more to the real Debbie than just nepotism. By all accounts she was one tough, capable, foul-mouthed cookie, running her father’s publishing empire while battling breast cancer and her own demons. But Winterbottom and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh instead opt to portray her as a talentless spoiled brat, forever trying to be the equal of her father. The real Debbie would probably have had their balls for breakfast for such a thin sketch of her.
And there lies the problem with The Look Of Love; it’s all surface gloss. While he did have a fondness for threesomes, Raymond himself was far from the freewheeling, free-spending showman Coogan plays; he was by nature something of a prude and was a notorious miser, obsessively buying up Soho property while often refusing to pay staff at his magazines. Perhaps the scene that comes closest to capturing the real Raymond is the uncomfortable meeting with the illegitimate son Derry (Liam Boyle) he abandoned as a baby and never formally acknowledged. As he shows off his Ringo Starr-designed swinging bachelor pad to the nervous young man, it’s obvious that Raymond doesn’t have a clue what to say to his son but also doesn’t care. He’s just not interested. Ultimately, despite all the showgirls, all the sex, all the coke, what really gave Raymond the horn was money and its miserly pursuit, something the film never really gets to grips with preferring to portray him as, well, Alan Partridge with a libido.
The Look Of Love is a panto version of Paul Raymond’s life that Raymond himself would be hard pressed to recognise.