Sketchpad: Steve Coogan in The Look of Love

Steve Coogan and Anna Friel in Michael Winterbottom's The Look of LoveWith his lead role as smut-baron Paul Raymond in Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love (a sort of Poundshop Boogie Nights set in London’s Soho nightclub scene), Steve Coogan proves that he has cornered a small market in playing sadsack, seedy and eccentric entrepreneurs with delusions of grandeur and self-importance. This would include other collaborations with Winterbottom, such as 24-Hour Party People, where he starred as Tony Wilson (“the biggest prick in Manchester, played by the second”, as Noel Gallagher, as I recall, said at the time), A Cock and Bull Story, and two series/films of The Trip, in all of which he played (a version of) himself.Steve Coogan and Tamsin Egerton in The Look of Love
Coogan is a gifted mimic, an exceptional impersonator incapable of disappearing into a role: there is always an eyebrow raised too far, a figurative gesture to the audience that this is a performance, a character. And maybe Coogan has spent so much time, and earned so much acclaim, mocking the minutiae of (fictionalised) public figures’ physical and vocal mannerisms that it’s always going to be difficult to ignore the essence of Partridge hanging so much of what he does. Partridge was such an immaculately drawn character, developed across a wide variety of programme formats (from radio, to TV, to film, to autobiography – incidentally, the audiobook of I, Partridge, read by Coogan himself as a virtuoso six-hour comic monologue, stands for my money alongside Jeremy Irons’s Lolita as the greatest examples of the form I’ve ever heard), and hard to forget as a result. As Coogan hits his 50s, he’s clearly trying to stretch himself as an actor, even as he plays to his strengths as a character comedian, turning in nuanced performances in Ruby Sparks, What Maisie Knew, and Philomena. There is a whiff of desperate melancholy around Coogan, probably stemming from his failure to really make it in Hollywood, something evidenced by his unease in the lead role of Around the World in 80 Days and repeatedly referenced in The Trip. It is the air of an actor trying so hard to move beyond the things at which he is probably peerless, looking for something that is considered more culturally valuable.
Steve Coogan and Imogen Poots in The Look of Love
Coogan’s talent for playing jumped-up flamboyant and emotionally stunted assholes has found its perfect foil in the contrapuntal style of Michael Winterbottom, all choppy, handheld, fast-cut and economic storytelling. Winterbottom frequently dodges sentimentality. At the emotional climax of The Look of Love, Coogan’s big emotional scene, which could have been the Brando moment to cap all the preceding Brando impersonations he’s done in his career (and earlier in the same film), but Winterbottom immediately cuts away to the next scene, as if imitating in filmic form Paul Raymond’s own avoidance of emotional confrontation.
Steve Coogan and Chris Addison The-look-of-love-film-stillHowever, I don’t want any of this to suggest that Steve Coogan is a bad actor. He’s a magnificent comic performer, an engaging screen presence, and a true personality – his self-eviscerating roles in A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip show great self-awareness and savvy about the mechanics of stardom that hold him back even as they make him admired. He knows his limitations, stretches them, and turns them back into material for his act.
Steve Coogan and dancing girls in The Look of Love
[In other thoughts about The Look of Love, which is a fast, funny, racy and well-told tale, I rather think it’s time to be more bored than I am with this kind of biopic, where a man with an extruded sense of his own brilliance pursues his dreams and lusts at the expense of his family, with women perpetually the scolds or offcuts of his pursuit of glamour and fame, and children the haunted rejects. I feel like I’ve seen it before, with very little variation.]

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