For his fourth feature collaboration with director Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan proposed a film about Paul Raymond, Britain’s answer to Hugh Hefner and for a time its richest citizen, and the results impressively showcase this comic thesp’s more dramatic side. As is often the case with biopics about highly public, driven entrepreneurs, “The Look of Love” feels somewhat superficial, but then, perhaps Raymond was most truly himself on the flashy surface. Ultimately achieving a degree of poignancy nonetheless, this vivid period whirlwind looks to be a slam-dunk in the U.K., but could require explanatory marketing from IFC, which picked up North American rights, and possibly ratings-minded cuts.
Other than a framing device that finds the now-aged mogul mourning the 1992 death of his most beloved child, Matt Greenhalgh’s script is a more or less chronological series of personal highlights. Things start with a black-and-white section that focuses on onetime stage mind-reader Raymond already working more as a presenter of entertainments, invariably spiced by the presence of half-naked girls. One of them is his first wife, Jean (Anna Friel), a choreographer who bears him two kids.
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As the ’60s arrive (in color), Raymond gains wealth and notoriety by pushing prudish England’s legal boundaries with revues, members-only clubs and cheesy legit plays that all showcase copious female nudity. One such theatrical venture introduces him to Amazonian redhead Fiona (Tamsin Egerton). While Jean had tolerated innumerable casual infidelities, this deeper involvement with a like-minded sexual adventuress prompts their bitter divorce.
Paul and Fiona wade full-on into the almost-anything-goes ’70s, adding a new venture, a magazine called Men Only, with Chris Addison as libertine editor Tony Power. But now they’re joined by his grown daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots), son Howard (Matthew Beard) having stormed off with Jean. Paul indulges the girl as both father and nepotistic employer, but she’s no natural performer, or much else, substituting drugs for a sense of personal direction or worth. It’s this relationship that finally gives the pic its narrative focus and a certain tragic weight.
Most of “Look” is a chronicle of excess — the title of a prior Coogan-Winterbottom collaboration, “24 Hour Party People,” would serve just as well here — that’s entertaining, racy, gloriously retro-tacky, and captures life in the fast lane almost a little too frenetically. Before its measure of gravity kicks in, some viewers may find it depressing in its soulless, kitschy period portrayal of immediate gratification. It’s a relief when, around the two-thirds mark, there’s a quiet, revealing setpiece in which Paul agrees to meet a son (Simon Bird) he’d abandoned decades earlier.
Though all the performances are very good, much of “Look’s” entertainment value comes from an impressive tech package that captures the shifting fashions of swinger-favored pop-culture garishness over the pic’s roughly 25-year period. Costumes and production design (Raymond’s penthouse apartment is a Me Decade marvel) are terrific, as are the retro montage and graphic styles. The soundtrack runs from exotica (Yma Sumac) to “Mellow Yellow” to disco to the music of Soft Cell, with an apt recurrent emphasis on the sinuous yet melancholy ’60s hits of Bacharach-David.
While it’s seldom lingered on, the large amount of fairly graphic sexual imagery may prove a ratings challenge in some territories.