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PARK CITY - Sometimes a title change -- even one necessitated by external forces -- can reveal more about a film's uncertainties than anyone involved could possibly realize. Michael Winterbottom's jazzy but scattershot biopic of London nightlife kingpin Paul Raymond, at one point declared Britain's richest man, is one such example.
Originally dubbed "The KIng of Soho," the film was made to change this straightforward title following the threat of legal action from a rival Raymond project. That's neither here nor there, but as a replacement appellation, "The Look of Love" seems so irrelevant to the subject at hand -- bar the recurring presence of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David chestnut on the soundtrack -- that one wonders whether those who chose it had any idea what the film was about.
Then again, in its current shape, I can't say I'm entirely sure what the film's about myself. Attempting to fuse both a jaunty nostalgia piece about Britain's sexual revolution and a wistful father-daughter love story into the same bullet-point biopic format, "The Look of Love" doesn't quite convince on any one of these three counts. As duelling framing devices bump up against a rapid rotation of tones, the filmmakers never get close enough to Raymond for us to share in their fascination with him -- though, as played by a typically sparky Steve Coogan, he remains charismatic company on a scene-to-scene basis.
Television might have been the ideal medium for a portrait of Raymond's eventful yet not dramatically momentous life, the assorted professional triumphs and romantic failures of which, it seems, had a way of repeating themselves. Raymond opened London's first euphemistically termed "gentlemen's club" in 1958, and posted further milestones on the road to the current social and legal status of pornography. It's one of the more interesting angles of Matt Greenhalgh's cluttered script that we leave the film undecided as to whether he was a genuine firebrand or a wily opportunist who spotted an unstoppable cultural wave coming, and simply rode in on it.
Both interpretations could make compelling long-form narratives, but in compressing five decades' worth of incident to feature size, Greenhalgh and Winterbottom wind up downplaying Raymond's career in favor of his touching, not-especially-tempestuous relationship with his devoted daughter Debbie (a strong Imogen Poots), whose attempts to shadow her father's smutty showbiz career led her to a severe cocaine habit and an early grave. That's no spoiler: one of the film's haphazard sets of bookends opens with a cowed-looking Raymond grieving for Debbie and reflecting on his life's errors.
The script may dictate otherwise, but for his part, Winterbottom seems more excited by the early, funny stuff in his subject's life. The film is at its liveliest, or at least its most creatively engaged, in the semi-cartoonish black-and-white stretches that cover the building blocks of his empire, as he brings nude circus revues to suitably tickled London crowds, and spars cheerfully with his first wife Jean -- played by Anna Friel, whose salty sex appeal and snappy rapport with Coogan are sorely missed when she's inevitably traded in for a younger casting-couch find (Tamsin Egerton).
The pace, however, slows -- to the point of doubling back on itself -- as Raymond's grubby star rises, Soho glows ever redder, and the screen fills with indeterminate colleagues and hangers-on, rendered no more interesting by a parade of faces recognizable chiefly to British TV viewers. By this point, "The Look of Love" shares considerable thematic and structural ground with "24 Hour Party People," a bustling blend of personal portraiture and pop-historical panorama set in the scrappy Manchester music scene that still ranks as one of Winterbottom's most purely satisfying films -- and the high point of his ongoing collaboration with Coogan.
But where that film succeeded by piling on the chaos to breaking point, "The Look of Love" ducks out early, the decadent excesses of Raymond's life limited to some obligatory hookers-and-fizz montages, as Debbie's less interesting personal crises take center stage. An aspiring singer wholly unburdened by talent, calling on her father for whatever modest breaks she can get, her plateau-and-fall story has a sad ring of petty tragedy to it, but nonetheless feels shoehorned into the bigger picture. By the time the film ends with her singing a sweetly broken rendition of the title track in melancholy closeup, it seems to have morphed into "The Princess of Soho," yet her character remains too hazily drawn -- becoming a mother of two in mere minutes of screen time -- to justify the shift in emphasis.
This careless shaping and distracted focus is nothing new for Winterbottom, a marvelously prolific and versatile director who rarely seems inclined to finish his films these days before bounding on to the next project. Still, it's disappointing that material this rich -- a British "Boogie Nights" was probably never on the cards, though one could hope -- couldn't come in for more dedicated treatment, right down to its not-quite-kitsch-enough selection of wallpaper. It's enjoyable enough, as any study of a life lived in the service of other people's pleasure ought to be, but "The Look of Love" finally settles for little more than a glance.
Everything: Sundance Film Festival
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