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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Coogan’

You would expect the coming together of a group as disparate as Ridley Scott, Steve Coogan, the BBC, and the Isle of Man film board to result in a fairly peculiar film – and sometimes things work out in an entirely predictable manner, for the fruit of their collective effort is Sean Foley’s Mindhorn, which is indeed fairly peculiar. This is a comedy, which is also as you might expect given the involvement of Coogan and co-writer and star Julian Barratt. Barratt is possibly best known for his role in the TV series The Mighty Boosh, which is another one of those things I must confess to having hardly ever seen. In some ways the new movie seems very familiar anyway, though.

Barratt plays Richard Thorncroft, a TV actor who was briefly famous in the 1980s as the star of Mindhorn, a (seemingly dreadful) show about a bionic detective set on the Isle of Man. (Yes, there may well be an implied dig at Bergerac, as there is a running gag about John Nettles in this movie too.) Now, however, Thorncroft’s star has faded, and he is now an overweight, balding unemployed-going-on-unemployable actor reduced to advertising support hosiery.

Things change, however, when a murderer strikes on the Isle of Man. The prime suspect is a mentally unstable youth (Russell Tovey) who’s obsessed with Mindhorn and wants to speak to his hero about the crime. Somewhat reluctantly, the Manx police decide to recruit Thorncroft to recreate his most famous role in the hope of catching the killer.

Once back on the island, however, Thorncroft gets a bit distracted, seeing this more as a chance to relaunch himself than an act of civic duty. So, rather to the annoyance of his police handler (Andrea Riseborough), he sets about trying to woo back his ex-partner (Essie Davis) and hopefully bring about the launch of Mindhorn on DVD, provided he can win the support of a much more successful ex-colleague (Coogan)…

As I said, there is a sense in which Mindhorn feels very familiar – this film is certainly not outside the mainstream of British comedy cinema in recent years. Films about delusional middle-aged men becoming caught up in slightly absurd adventures have actually been pretty common – Mindhorn is especially reminiscent of the Alan Partridge movie, Alpha Papa (though this was perhaps inevitable given it was made by the same company), but it also has a strong whiff of the David Brent film, too. Perhaps as a result, the genuinely odd thing about Mindhorn is that it feels like a big-screen adaptation of a sitcom, even though it’s a wholly original story. There’s been a notable tradition of metatextuality in British comedy for a while now, and Mindhorn’s lovingly-detailed if rather OTT realisation of the show-within-the-movie is part of it – viewers who stay to the very end of the film are rewarded, if that’s the right word, with a fake music video from the fictional Thorncroft’s non-existent music career. I was particularly reminded of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, another project built around an absurd 80s genre pastiche, and not surprised to learn that Barratt was involved in that show too.

I suppose the other distinctive thing about this film is that most of it is set in the Isle of Man. Now it’s not that the Isle of Man doesn’t show up in movies occasionally, it’s just that when it does it’s usually pretending to be somewhere else (for example, Waking Ned, where it’s supposed to be Ireland). In Mindhorn, the Isle of Man is on screen as itself (various local tourist spots are worked into the plot), but the odd thing is that this is largely bathetic. The idea of a TV show about a bionic detective isn’t as necessarily funny as that of a TV show about a bionic detective set in the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man’s role in the story is to be a provincial, underwhelming backdrop (much fun is had with the supposed awfulness of the Manx Day parade), which strikes me as a rather brave move on the part of the Isle of Man film board, who were involved in making this movie, after all.

Still, none of this matters very much given that the film is genuinely funny all the way through, for all of its vague familiarity. The film is, as mentioned, lovingly detailed, with a very strong cast inhabiting its array of comic grotesques – there are a couple of celebrity cameos early on which raise a smile. As regular readers may know, I’m not a particular fan of most modern comedies – they generally don’t make me laugh, plain and simple – but there are many extremely funny bits in Mindhorn: Julian Barratt carries the film with impressive aplomb, and the script is solidly structured and cleverly plotted. On the other hand, this is clearly a film which has been made on an extremely low budget – what, the Isle of Man film board doesn’t have bottomless coffers at its disposal?! – and this does occasionally result in an unintentional sense of cheesiness.

Then again, it just adds to the charm, probably, for this is a movie which was almost certainly never intended to set the world on fire – or even the Isle of Man, probably. It’s not terribly innovative or spectacular, but it takes the business of being very knowingly stupid extremely seriously, and I did laugh a lot. And that’s ultimately what you want from a comedy film.

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Well, the number of major studio releases in cinemas has reached peak again, so while they all take a short break from bringing out big new films, a gap has appeared for the smaller and more niche movie to take advantage of. There are a couple of classic pop and rock period pieces doing the rounds at the moment – a somewhat controversial Jimi Hendrix bio-pic, which I haven’t seen, and Elaine Constantine’s ultra-low-budget paean to a very particular time and place, Northern Soul, which I have.

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Constantine’s film takes as its backdrop the Northern Soul scene of Lancashire in the mid 1970s, when young English people became thoroughly enraptured with uptempo, beat-heavy music made in the US a decade earlier. It is a distinct subculture which has experienced a bit of a revival in recent years, and one which launched the careers of some fairly significant music-industry figures (along with that of the ever-controversial Ian Levine, continuity advisor to the 1980s Doctor Who regime and co-composer of the legendary ‘doo-doo-doo-de-doo’ K9 and Company theme tune). So perhaps it makes some sense to use it as a major element of a movie.

This is not, as some publicity suggests, a dramatised history of the rise of Northern Soul to prominence, but an entirely fictional narrative – the hero, John (Elliot James Langridge), comes from an entirely made-up small Lancashire town, presumably because this allows the film to be very very rude about it without attracting complaints from irate councillors. Anyway, here he lives, mocked and ridiculed by his schoolmates, misunderstood by his parents, and so on. He is clearly a young man of potential just searching for an outlet.

He finds this when he befriends Matt (Josh Whitehouse), a flamboyant and unpredictable afficionado of the Northern Soul sound. John quickly falls under the sway of the lifestyle, with its alluring mixture of banging tunes, heavy amphetamine use, low-intensity vandalism, and improbably high-kicking dance moves. John and Matt share a dream: to go to the States, purchase a trove of obscure soul records for themselves, and use them to become established as powers in the world of Northern Soul DJ-ing…

The most obvious thing about Northern Soul is that, as a film about Northern Soul, it has a terrific Northern Soul soundtrack. But, on the other hand, this is pretty much the minimum you would expect from a film concerned with this particular milieu. The success or failure of this film depends on what else it brings to the party.

On paper the omens are good – the film has been produced in association with the usually reliable company Baby Cow, which means that the services of some noted performers have been procured – John Thomson, Ricky Tomlinson, Lisa Stansfield – as well as those of one bona fide star, in the form of Steve Coogan. However, what the advertising is somewhat less than forthright about is the fact that all of these people are only in the film for about four minutes each, and no matter how talented they are, there is limit to how high they can rise above the level of the script.

This, at the risk of mangling a metaphor, sets a low bar for proceedings. Thematically, this is just the kind of musically-tinged coming-of-age story we have seen many times before – John learns some tough lessons about friendship and responsibility along the way – and to be honest the only way it departs from this template is in a certain cack-handedness: it’s actually a little unclear exactly what tough lessons John has learned by the arrival of the conclusion – he certainly seems no closer to reaching any of the nebulous goals the script has set for him. The conclusion is, to be perfectly honest, not what you might expect, but to say much more would be to talk about second- and third-act plot details, which is obviously a no-no.

Even beyond this, the film’s actual scene execution is often sub-par: there’s almost an am-dram quality to the performances of the younger members of the cast (which includes all the leads), and too often the film trades in It’s Grim Up North stereotypes and period misery. And, for a film about rebellious youth, the film makes a serious misjudgement in presenting the forces they’re rebelling against – teachers, parents, youth club organisers – as so pathetic and petty themselves. This robs many scenes of an appropriate emotional context and the result is simply melodrama – characters seeming to overreact wildly to the simplest of things.

And so things remain fairly uninvolving throughout, which is a problem for a character-driven film like this one. And while the script has a vague stab at incorporating elements of the Northern Soul legend into the story – trips to America in search of new discs, mysterious blank-labelled records (so DJs could retain exclusive access to certain songs), certain famous clubs – it ultimately remains not much more than a broad-brush backdrop in front of which an uninspired narrative is enacted.

I wanted to like Northern Soul, honestly, but apart from the soundtrack it really doesn’t have much to commend it – the characters are unsympathetic, and not portrayed with any great finesse, while the story is uninspired and actually a bit dispiriting – wholly unlike the music it attempts to celebrate. When it comes to movies, bigger isn’t always better, but small isn’t always beautiful.

 

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Well, look, there’s all sorts of ways I could launch into a review of Stephen Frears’ Philomena, but only one which I know will get every regular reader excited.

In other words – he’s back! I am, of course, referring to my trusty Comparison Wrangler, who in the past has shared with me his considered verdicts on Beasts of the South Wild (‘Waterworld meets City of God’), Silver Linings Playbook (‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Dirty Dancing’), Hitchcock (‘The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns’), and Lincoln (‘Forrest Gump meets Dirty Harry’). Circumstances have meant that the Wrangler and I have not been able to go to the cinema together in a ridiculously long time, but finally the stars came right and off we went to see Philomena (Mrs Wrangler came along too).

To be honest, Philomena had not featured prominently on my list of films to see, even though it does feature Steve Coogan, whose praises I have been intermittently singing all this year, and Judi first-person-to-F-bomb-a-Bond-movie Dench, who’s one of those people who seems utterly incapable of giving a poor performance.

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Based on a true story, in Frears’ movie Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist-turned-government-spin-doctor-turned-unemployed-person (such has been the career trajectory of many in recent years, but at least he managed to dodge jail time), looking to restart his career in some fashion. A chance encounter at a party leads him to Philomena (Dench), a little old lady from Ireland who fifty years earlier was compelled to give up her firstborn son for adoption.

Philomena, naturally, has never stopped thinking about her child, but all her efforts to track him down have come to nothing. Though Martin is dismissive of this kind of narrative from a journalistic point of view, on the most basic level it at least offers him the possibility of selling a story, so he agrees to use his contacts to assist her with her enquiries.

And what follows is the sort of story you would mockingly dismiss if it were presented to you purely as a piece of fiction. I knew very little about Philomena prior to going to see it, and the various twists and jumps in the narrative consistently engaged and surprised me.

The main reason I was indifferent to actually seeing this film was that, essentially, I thought it was a movie about various institutionalised horrors perpetrated by the Catholic Church and parents cut off from their children by great distances and long periods of time. I’ve seen that film; I’ve seen that film a number of times, in fact (as The Magdalene Sisters and Oranges and Sunshine, to name but two), and I don’t particularly feel the need to go and see another version of it unless it brings something new and different to the table.

And Philomena does this, mainly because the horrible-Catholic-nun material is sparingly deployed (needless to say this also makes it more effective), and much of the film is instead played as an odd-couple comedy drama. Philomena is sweet, straightforward, uncultured, and decent; Martin is educated, refined, highly intelligent and deeply cynical. The film is fundamentally about how he gives her the answers she has been waiting most of her life for, and how she manages to instill in him a little more humanity and feeling.

The film is smart enough to anticipate the criticism that this type of narrative might not be  more than woman’s magazine sob-story fodder, and gives the film an unexpectedly sharp edge in places: Martin is initially only doing it for the cheque, privately very dismissive of Philomena, and indifferent as to whether the actual resolution to their search is a happy or sad one (both are equally good from a journalistic point of view). You know this won’t last, but it’s still a refreshing perspective to see on screen.

And of course it doesn’t hurt matters at all that the majority of the film is a two-hander played between performers both carved of solid Star. It isn’t even as if Coogan is there to deliver the smart, jaundiced comedy while Dench rolls out the tear-jerking stuff. Both of them get their moments both of comedy and real drama, and both are equally effective. It isn’t really a surprise to see a film in which Judi Dench gives a virtuoso display of acting – but it is, perhaps, where Steve Coogan is concerned. Nevertheless, he matches Dench here.

This is, I think, the fourth live-action movie starring Steve Coogan to be released this year (the third I’ve actually seen, after The Look of Love and Alan Partridge), which is an impressive work rate even before one considers the sheer range of material he appears in. Nevertheless, I think this may be a bit of a watershed moment for Coogan as a performer – it’s not a grotesque, not a comedy turn, he’s not playing an exaggeration of himself or delivering a sparkling cameo. This is a proper leading man performance from someone with serious chops as an actor, and as such this may just be his finest hour at the movies to date (the fact that he co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film himself are also not to be overlooked).

This is an impressive, well-made, frequently very funny and equally quite moving film, which nevertheless has respect for its audience and doesn’t lay the sentimentality on with a trowel. It’s powered by two extremely good performances from two of the UK’s finest actors, and it’s a bit of a treat. I wasn’t planning to see this film, but I’m very glad I did.

And at the end I looked at my trusty Comparison Wrangler, not even needing to ask the question.

‘Harold and Maude,’ quoth he, ‘meets Finding Nemo.’

He’s still got it.

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There’s having a bit of a range, then there’s being impressively versatile, then there’s having a CV which is all over the place, and then there’s being Michael Winterbottom. Thomas Hardy adaptations, gruelling real-world reportage, respectable hard-core, lesbian serial killers: this man has done the lot. His work is impossible to categorise, for all that he is one of those directors who makes frequent use of the same collaborators. One of the higher-profile of these is Steve Coogan, who worked with him on 24 Hour Party People, The Look of Love, The Trip (a TV show in the UK but a movie elsewhere), and 2005’s A Cock And Bull Story.

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For a man of Winterbottom’s restless ambition you can see the attraction of having a go at Laurence Sterne’s almost-definitively unfilmable novel Tristram Shandy, for that is what this is almost-always described as. The book itself has been been on my to-read list for many years , and I am usually wary of watching film versions of books I’m planning to read. A Cock And Bull Story is probably not likely to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the source material, though.

Coogan plays Tristram Shandy, an eighteenth-century gentleman in the process of telling his life story. Coogan also plays Shandy’s father Walter, who to be honest has a slightly larger role in the film as Tristam himself is not actually born in the course of the book. This, if you will, the central gag of the book – Tristram gets so easily distracted with peripheral stories about the circumstances of his conception and the lives of various relatives that he never quite gets round to his own birth.

So this is not a conventional life story, and the film initially looks like it’s going to be a little off the wall, too: there’s a scene in which a youthful Tristram gets his member trapped in a sash window, which is not the stuff of your traditional costume drama, and then a sequence in which Coogan/Shandy apologises for the poor quality of the various child actors employed to portray him.

However, the movie is just getting started, and this is why I feel describing A Cock And Bull Story as an actual adaptation of Tristram Shandy is rather misleading. There is, all right, a longish section near the start of the film portraying the confinement of Tristram’s mother (Keeley Hawes), the arrival of a doctor who doesn’t exactly inspire trust (Dylan Moran), and so on. But then the narrative suddenly takes a step back, and rather than being about the story of the book, the film is about an attempt to make a low-budget adaptation of Tristram Shandy starring an actor named Steve Coogan.

The part of Steve Coogan is played, not entirely surprisingly, by Steve Coogan, and also appearing as fictionalised versions of themselves are Hawes, Moran, Gillian Anderson and  – most prominently – Rob Brydon. Coogan is depicted as a deeply insecure individual, permanently concerned with maintaining his status as the star of the production, and very threatened by any increase in Brydon’s prominence in the film.

Anyone whose seen The Trip will probably be quite familiar with the relationship between Coogan and Brydon’s fictional alter-egos and the sniping and backbiting that goes on between them. The clever thing about this idea is that both characters are just close enough to the public perception of who these actors really are for it to be hard to tell them apart – Coogan in particular plays up to his tabloid image as a slightly dodgy character with a chaotic personal life. On the other hand, any film in which famous people play themselves is always going to be open to charges that it’s just being self-regarding and clever-clever.

As a side issue, the film also features quite a few well-known faces – Kelly Macdonald, a pre-Moneypenny Naomie Harris, a pre-Graviton Ian Hart, and others – and it can be unclear who’s supposed to be playing themself and who isn’t. It does draw attention to the artificial divisions in the narrative.

Then again, perhaps that’s the point of it all. There are some jokes which are perhaps a little too self-reflexive: the fictional Gillian Anderson, upon seeing the finished adaptation, expresses her surprise at how little she’s actually in it – Anderson herself is in the movie for probably less than ten minutes. But most of the time, the film succeeds when it tries to be funny – although this is never what you’d call broad or even mainstream humour. There’s an air of ostentatious cleverness running through this film which may not be to everyone’s taste.

And, as usual, it’s very difficult to combine this kind of conceit with genuine drama and emotion – a parallel is established between Walter Shandy’s concerns for his son, and fictional-Coogan’s relationship with his own new baby, and the emotion never quite connects, simply because one has already been made aware that these are not real people.

That said, I enjoy clever films, and the stuff with Coogan and Brydon is droll enough to be a lot of fun. It’s not the biggest or most memorable of films, and almost certainly not one of Winterbottom’s best, but it’s certainly different. And while it may not actually be a straight adaptation of Tristram Shandy, I suspect it does a better job of capturing the style and essence of the source material than many straight adaptations manage. It’s not really Tristram Shandy, but it’s a lot like it.

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There is no doubt a very good reason why Steve Coogan, Armando Ianucci, Peter Baynham and their various colleagues have chosen this year to release an Alan Partridge movie, but for the life of me I can’t quite make out what it is. It’s not as though all their careers have been in the doldrums, and they’re in need of a relatively safe bet to make some money – Coogan has led one film in the last twelve months and played major roles in a couple of others. Nor is it that public interest in and demand for more Alan is currently at a peak – it would have been a relatively easy prospect to secure funding for this project at any time in the last fifteen years, and I always got the impression that it was Coogan himself who was reluctant to spend too much time playing Norwich’s famous son. Nevertheless, here it is – Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (the subtitle is largely irrelevant), directed by Declan Lowney.

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Everyone in the UK, surely, has some idea who Alan Partridge is, but I suspect he is much less celebrated in the wider world. Suffice to say that Partridge has bestridden the media landscape like a sports-casual-clad colossus for over two decades now, first rising to fame as a radio sports correspondent, then exhibiting a magisterial grasp of interviewing techniques in various branches of the BBC. Sadly, his chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge was cancelled in 1994 due to unacceptably low viewing figures (and the high mortality rate amongst the guests), since when the great man has retreated to become a legend in Norfolk-based local radio.

This is where we find him as the film opens. The station at which he works has just been bought by a large media company, who are intent on making changes – and when Alan discovers his name is on a list of potential sackees, he does the honourable thing and persuades them to get rid of fellow veteran DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) instead of him. Pat takes this news badly and proceeds to take everyone in the building hostage at gunpoint, insisting on being allowed to air his grievances over the airwaves. Furthermore, he refuses to speak directly to the police, accepting only one man as an intermediary and negotiator. And that man’s name is Alan Partridge.

In some ways this is a slightly odd film: Colm Meaney gets his name above the title, presumably because he has some sort of profile in the US and this will help when it comes to marketing the film over there. I still can’t imagine this will be an easy proposition as when all is said and done this is still yet another TV comedy spin-off movie, and a very, very British one. The humour is basically a mixture of slapstick farce and comedy of embarrassment – I can potentially see the former reaching an international audience, but not the latter.

This is not to say that the film is not funny, because it is – if you get the Alan Partridge character, anyway. Alan’s mixture of political incorrectness, brazen self-absorbtion, bad taste and general social awkwardness is the same as it has ever been, but as ever there are moments of pathos that ensure he doesn’t come across as a complete monster. The brilliance of the character is in the sheer precision and attention to detail with which he is written and performed, and this has not changed: one of the funniest sequences in the film is the opening credits, which simply show Alan singing along to the radio while driving to work. But he’s still quite a subtle creation, and I’m not sure the big screen is Alan’s natural home.

To repeat, though, this is a funny film that’s worth the price of admission. Steve Coogan is always, always worth watching, and here’s he’s supported by a very strong cast of British comedy stalwarts. Meaney is quietly rather impressive, inasmuch as he stops Coogan completely dominating all their scenes together, and long-term Partridge followers will appreciate appearances by several members of Alan’s regular supporting cast off the telly.

Even so – I have laughed more, and been more engaged by, other comedy films recently. This is perhaps a little too low-key and parochial, compared to – for example – The World’s End, and the siege plotline feels a bit underpowered. There are moments when the story doesn’t quite hang together, too. Then again, I’ve always preferred the very early Alan Partridge radio and TV shows in terms of their basic comedy value, rather than the later more character-based stuff. Nevertheless, for me this doesn’t quite do either Alan Partridge or Steve Coogan full justice. Still a decent, entertaining comedy though.

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It must be quite curious to be Steve Coogan: undoubtedly a massive talent, and a man with a significant international career (he tends to pop up in one or two Hollywood movies a year, albeit usually quirky supporting roles), easily capable of selling out major live tours in the UK – and yet his CV is still dominated by one comedy character he first performed on radio over twenty years ago. He might, perhaps, be forgiven for feeling that his career has faltered somewhat, certainly compared to some of the predictions that were being made ten or fifteen years ago.

And yet he can still lead, and perhaps more importantly open a movie. Many of his most interesting recent parts have emerged from his collaborations with Michael Winterbottom, an endlessly prolific and unpredictable director. It was Coogan and Winterbottom who made 24 Hour Party People in 2002, a look at a particular slice of British cultural history framed as a biopic (and possibly the only biopic in history whose subject turned up uninvited to press conferences promoting the film, solely in order to stand at the back and heckle the film-makers).

There’s something similar about Winterbottom’s new movie, The Look of Love, which Coogan also stars in – although they are unlikely to be harassed by its disgruntled subjects this time around, as most of the principals are safely deceased. Coogan plays Paul Raymond, the self-styled ‘King of Soho’ (this was apparently going to be the title of the movie until it transpired that Raymond’s own heirs were planning a biography with that title).

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The movie opens in 1958, with Raymond presented as a fairly small-time seaside impressario (his big success is with a show featuring topless lion-taming) However, a move to London and the opening of the glitzy ‘Raymond Revuebar’ leads to much more substantial success, and the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s powers of theatrical censorship in 1968 offers much wider opportunities in the field of adult entertainment.  As the film acknowledges, you are never likely to lose money with a business plan based around charging to look at naked women, but the financial rewards Raymond reaps come at the expense of the collapse of his marriage (Anna Friel plays Raymond’s wife, and does so rather well).

New girlfriend (Tamsin Egerton) in tow, Raymond enters the seventies intent on an odyssey of bacchanalian excess and slightly shabby bad-taste glamour, branching out into property investment and adult publishing. As time passes, the film makes it increasingly clear that the only meaningful relationship in Raymond’s life is the one he has with his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots, who I believe we can legitimately refer to as a rising star following her many recent successes), but the involvement of a fragile young woman in the world Raymond inhabits comes at a price.

As I mentioned, Steve Coogan is best-known as a comedy performer, and the shadow of the Partridge to some extent hangs over his work here – it’s hard not to conclude that his history playing pompous and slightly absurd figures was one of the factors which led to his being cast here. And, apart from the three women already mentioned, he’s backed up by a supporting cast which is essentially a who’s who of contemporary British comic talent – everyone from David Walliams to Dara O’Briain (who, somewhat oddly, appears to have been cast as Alexei Sayle, though this is left implicit).

So, as you’d expect, this is a film containing some very funny moments, most of them admittedly in questionable taste – the subject matter of Raymond’s businesses and lifestyle has resulted in the film getting an 18 certificate (which, incidentally, has doubtless impacted on its box office returns – I was the only punter at the afternoon showing I attended). Coogan carries all this off with the aplomb you might expect.

However, the strange thing about The Look of Love is that the casting doesn’t really reflect the main thrust of the story, because this is not at its heart the off-colour farce or jolly mickey-take of Raymond you might expect. This is really a tragedy, of sorts, and an attempt to examine the paradox at the heart of Paul Raymond – an absolutely devoted, loving father, who nevertheless uses and exploits women on a literally industrial scale, his success as a property tycoon, entrepreneur, and pornographer making him the wealthiest man in the UK.

Then again, I may be misreading the intent of the film, as this element of the plot takes a while to really get going, prior to which we are treated to various jolly japes and escapades featuring Raymond and his relationships with the characters played by Friel and Egerton. On the other hand, the film is framed by an absolutely desolated Raymond recalling his relationship with his daughter, so…

Anyway, Coogan gives a fantastic performance, managing to find some humanity behind Raymond’s ridiculous image, and he’s genuinely touching when confronted by the failures of his various relationships and the various tribulations in his daughter’s life. Imogen Poots is as classy as ever as Debbie Raymond.

Despite all this, I didn’t find this as satisfying as some of Coogan and Winterbottom’s previous collaborations. Partly this is down to the unevenness of tone, partly due to a sense of having seen this kind of film done numerous times before. I think perhaps it’s also down to the ambiguity of the film – on the one hand there’s a lot of implied criticism of Raymond’s overblown lifestyle and business concerns, but on the other we’re treated to a lot of shapely female flesh in various poses and combinations. As ever, there’s a thin line between making fun of prurience and simply being prurient yourself.

However, this isn’t a bad film, by any means – the period settings are convincing, the story rattles along engagingly, and the performances are accomplished. It never quite gets to the heart of its central character, but it still does a good enough job of telling his rather peculiar story to be worth a look.

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A sure sign that Autumn is close upon us comes in the form of the cinema shedding its rugged, manly, summer masculinity of tone and becoming altogether rather more feminine in outlook. Well, possibly I exaggerate a bit, but I can’t imagine all those sprawling and bombastic superhero blockbusters being put together with ladies in mind. Romantic comedies of the ilk of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Ruby Sparks are a different beast entirely. Well, this is being marketed as a romantic comedy, but I suspect this is simply the least inaccurate category into which to pop this slightly strange film.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer whose career has been hobbled by his writing a brilliant and hugely successful novel at a very young age. Now he is in thrall to the tyranny of the blank page, seriously struggling with that difficult second novel (the film does bang into that old problem of how to depict somebody writing in a cinematic way – failing to find an answer, we just see Dano’s hands and eyes as he bashes away at his keyboard – presumably for aesthetic reasons, Calvin is the only professional writer in the world still using a manual typewriter). He is finding life quite trying despite the well-meaning assistance of his family and agent. However, as a result of advice given by his analyst (Elliott Gould), Calvin finds himself beset by strange and vivid dreams, all concerning a free-spirited Bohemian young woman (oh, zzzzz), whom he christens Ruby Sparks. She is played by Zoe Kazan.

Calvin’s dreams of Ruby provoke a sudden and welcome burst of creativity, but this is accompanied by odd events around the house: strange and rather intimate feminine items start popping up all over the place, to the bemusement of Calvin and his friends. Then, after a particularly intense writing session, our hero awakes one morning to find the previously completely fictitious Ruby in the house with him, apparently completely corporeal and utterly convinced she is his girlfriend…

Well, it’s a novel opening for a film, I’ll grant you that. I suppose it sounds like the stuff of a wacky, whimsical little comedy film, very mainstream, and quite probably starring someone like Vince Vaughn. But it isn’t. Instead, to begin with it comes across very much like an off-day Woody Allen script brought to the screen by Miranda July. I am aware I am throwing in an obscure cultural reference or two in there, but that’s the territory I’m afraid – the biggest surprise about this film is that it’s got a fairly major mainstream release, because it has ‘indie arthouse cult rave’ written all over it.

This is the kind of film where the central characters float around with no visible means of support, basically surveying their own navels. There are lots of scenes where they agonise at length over their tangled psyches and personal lives with their much more conventional friends and family while having barbecues or playing sports, all in a very naturalistic yet terribly articulate manner. Once you strip out the central fantasy conceit, this is really what you’ve got here.

The previous film from these directors, Little Miss Sunshine, was apparently very well-received, which may explain the presence in this film of a remarkably strong supporting cast – as well as Gould, there is Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, and a particularly good Steve Coogan. Chris Messina also does a good job of wringing a few laughs out of the script. But it’s hampered by incredibly mannered and self-conscious performances by Dano and Kazan: the film soon turns into an examination of a romance between two of the most irritating people you will ever see.

That said, I suppose Zoe Kazan is reasonably good in a fairly demanding part – on the other hand (and given the nature of the story this is sort of ironic) she wrote the script herself, in addition to exec producing the thing, so she must take her share of the blame for a film which I found a rather trying experience.

This film doesn’t really have the ideas to justify its running time and as a result it does feel like it’s dragging on horribly in quite a few places. The poster for it outside the coffeeshop listed the running time as 164 minutes rather than 104, and as a result quite early on I was dismally checking my watch and trying to work out how they were possibly going to sustain the story for that long. Thankfully, they don’t even try: another hour of this film and I might well have run amok in the cinema.

And, quite apart from the general tone and style of the thing, this film is palpably very indie-ish in the way it doesn’t seem to want to settle down and be one particular thing. Okay, so there’s a central romance going on – but there’s also clearly some sort of statement about the creative process and that oft-mentioned moment when your characters achieve a life of their own being made.

(My characters, when I write fiction, show no willingness to do this, which may be yet another reason why my fiction is generally so lousy. Then again, as I’m planning another go at NaNoWriMo this year and the only book idea to achieve any traction in my head is an HP Lovecraft pastiche of such comprehensive unpleasantness I’m slightly repelled to consider it myself, perhaps this is no bad thing. Where were we…?)

Oh, yes: and then beyond this Ruby Sparks tries to get into stuff about the nature of relationships and the control dynamics within them. There’s some quite dark material here. What the film never really manages to be, unfortunately, is either consistently funny or romantically involving. It always seems a bit overwhelmed by its own irky-quirky BoHo indie conceit and style, and constantly a little too pleased with itself. The result is a movie that’s being marketed as a romantic comedy, but didn’t really make me laugh and actively put me off the notion of having a relationship. It’s a competent realisation of a rather unsatisfying script – a distinctive film, but also a deeply peculiar and somewhat annoying one.

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