Reviewed: The Look of Love

Mags to riches.

The Look of Love (18)
dir: Michael Winterbottom

An 11th-hour change of title befell Michael Winterbottom’s film about the life of Paul Raymond, the club owner, property magnate and porn baron, when it emerged that Raymond’s son had first dibs on The King of Soho. But that title would have seemed too celebratory for a film that already becomes excitable whenever it depicts its subject’s escapades through the convention of montage.

The Look of Love is a more thoughtful fit for a picture that at least tries to make sense of the warped relationship between Raymond (Steve Coogan) and his daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots). The film suggests that having inducted her into his hedonistic, druggy lifestyle as a show of devotion denied to his other children, he failed to notice the damage it was doing. He couldn’t see the addict for the coke.

That said, the movie gets off to a disastrous start. The authentically groovy title sequence, accompanied by a sax-heavy easy-listening score, is perfect. Jacqueline Abrahams’s production design and Stephanie Collie’s costumes are persuasive from the off – the speed with which labyrinthine wallpaper patterns, leopard-print furniture and men’s furs come to appear normal is retrospectively frightening. But the structural choices made by the screenwriter, Matt Greenhalgh, who has form in the biopic genre, after Control and Nowhere Boy, betray his script’s identity crisis. The film begins after Debbie’s death, with Raymond sequestered in a velvet-walled sanctuary watching a documentary about her life. No sooner has this started than the action switches to a second documentary, this time about Raymond, his career and domestic happiness with his wife, Jean (Anna Friel). Even Citizen Kane only needed one documentary-within-the-film, for goodness sake.

Raymond and Jean share an understanding about his extra-curricular activities with the dancers who populate his establishments – notably the members’ club the Raymond Revuebar, which he opened in Soho in 1958. The understanding extends to Raymond doing whatever he likes and Jean being a good sport about it. When he climbs into bed long after her, it is almost shocking to hear her chirrup without malice: “Was she nice?” The next time it happens, she is not placated by Raymond admitting that he doesn’t know whether or not Fiona (Tamsin Egerton), that evening’s companion, is good in bed. If he didn’t sleep with her, she must be special.

Sure enough, Raymond leaves Jean and their children for Fiona. Exiting court after the divorce hearing, he can’t help correcting a reporter who calls the settlement agreed in his ex-wife’s favour one of the largest in British history: “I think you’ll find it’s the largest.” His bragging extends even to his losses. But then it’s the same sensibility that enables him to turn ashes into gold dust: when a tabloid newspaper sneers at the “arbitrary displays of naked flesh” in one of his dodgy theatrical productions, he splashes the line all over the posters. “House Full” signs go up in no time.

When Debbie is old enough, Raymond brings her into the business as the only clothed participant of one of his nude musicals. At a press conference, he responds with alarm to the question of whether she will appear naked, and Winterbottom cuts to Debbie giving an almost imperceptible wince at this display of protectiveness doubling as a slight; she’s like the schoolchild who is happy to be excused from PE for all eternity by an everlasting sick note but resentful of the outsider status, the perceived privilege, that this confers on her.

It doesn’t help that Debbie’s ambitions don’t always correspond to her talents. Any actor looking to mine pathos from an obliviously terrible musical turn is competing with the memory of Gwen Welles in Robert Altman’s Nashville. (Altman always said he never knew if this was Welles giving it her best shot and falling short, and never asked.) There are many great moments in Poots’s piercing performance – ordering champagne through a cascade of wounded tears, or breaking bad news to her father by chopping it out in cocaine form –but her delicate rendition of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David title song, in a version only just poor enough to signal that Debbie plausibly might not realise her own shortcomings, is the high point.

If Debbie becomes the centre of the film, that’s only because Raymond is so fatally lacking in self-awareness. (His solution when an associate rages about Debbie’s drug habit is to sack the associate.) Coogan is good at the bluster and the showmanship, less so when forced to contemplate himself mournfully in the mirror in that old standby shot for the character in need of depth. He will undoubtedly be a better actor once he can remove most of the traces of his key creation, the rancid minor celebrity Alan Partridge, and of himself. There are Partridge-esque touches here, such as the attempted witticisms that lead to unforeseen conversational cul-de-sacs. Warming to the idea of himself as the Pied Piper as he gives Fiona a tour of his apartment, Raymond says: “Yes, follow me into the . . . well, not the sewer . . .” Not hard to imagine that line leaving Partridge’s curdled mouth.

Elsewhere it seems Raymond is being remade in Coogan’s image. It may be that the real Paul Raymond was an incorrigible impressionist, given to imitating Sean Connery during meals. (We’ve all done it.) But Coogan’s dinner-table impressions were such a big part of Winterbottom’s BBC series The Trip, it might have been prudent to steer clear of them, or else risk looking like the actor who is an accomplished accordionist in his spare time and argues on this basis that his character should play the accordion too.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

David Brent: Life on the Road
Show Hide image

Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.