If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
Steve Coogan has a talent for self-laceration. His best roles are all about him, or rather a reflection of himself that he finds funny, in a pathetic sort of way.
The actor's American roles are mostly forgettable: "The Indian in the Cupboard," "Hamlet 2," "Around the World in 80 Days". But in his native England, he's most well-known as bumbling, megalomaniacal talk show host-turned-disc jockey Alan Partridge, a character that has survived multiple series thanks to Coogan's bottomless reserve of insecurity. To be fair, Partridge is a relatively indirect version of Coogan. The similarities between Partridge and the characters Coogan plays in Michael Winterbottom's films are more striking, especially "Steve Coogan" in both "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" and "The Trip". The characters that Coogan plays for Winterbottom are refracted parts of a singular personality, one that Coogan has cultivated through many of his best recent performances.
Winterbottom continues to bring out the best in Coogan's self-parodizing schtick in "The Look of Love", his biopic about the rise and fall of British pornographer Paul Raymond. You don't need to know Coogan's previous roles, or his often-falsified reputation in the British tabloids, to get the joke this time, but it helps. In Winterbottom's latest, Raymond is willfully oblivious: he doesn't want to examine his life—not very deeply, anyway. So when his daughter Deborah (Imogen Poots) overdoses, he spends the rest of the film's 97-minute runtime spacing out, and blankly remembering his life with her. Fatherhood, getting older, and not getting famous in the way he'd like to: in "The Look of Love", these subjects are all on Coogan's mind, as they were in "Tristram Shandy", where his fictional version of Coogan flirts with his personal assistant while avoiding his girlfriend. Writing about "Tristram Shandy" in Sight & Sound, Liese Spencer notes, "Winterbottom engages the viewer by toying with the personas that make up our perception of 'Steve Coogan'. So we see a slightly precious comedian, a tabloid-friendly shagger, an actor keen to escape the cloying success of his much-loved television character, a gentle lover and a distracted father." Replace one or two proper nouns, and the same description applies to Coogan's role in "The Look of Love."
"The Look of Love" presents Steve Coogan as Tony Raymond as a man in crisis. He escapes into the role of impresario of his own personal SoHo fiefdom of strip clubs and burlesque revues, and avoids the baggage of his previous marriage to Jean Raymond (Anna Friel) by throwing himself into his relationship with Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton). It's a relationship based on convenience, so it doesn't last long. Coogan often plays this type of ridiculous would-be Don Juan, as in "The Trip," where co-star Rob Brydon constantly teases him about his narcissistic need to pursue younger women. He jokingly compares Coogan to Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible II," saying that he'd do anything to impress a woman, even cimb up an armoire wearing crampons. Coogan goes farther, defensively scowling, "I don't chase [girls]… you make me sound like Benny Hill," before pouting, "Yeah, well...everything's exhausting when you're past 40. Everything's exhausting at our age."
Ironically, romantic entanglements is one aspect of Steve Coogan's self-mockery that he persists in reminding viewers is not exactly analogous to reality. For example, Mischa, the girlfriend that he phones throughout "The Trip," is fictional, and played by actress Margo Stilley. And in an interview with Spencer, Winterbottom says that Coogan didn't want his wife to play his girlfriend in "Tristram Shandy." "Because he did have a wife whom he was divorced from […] Those kinds of changes were useful because they clarified that this is fiction, and not actually a documentary about Steve Coogan." But Coogan has rarely put that much distance between his characters and his ego when it comes to making fun of his career. Alan Partridge is boisterous and insecure, always dreaming of a comeback that never happens the way he wants it to. "I'm Alan Partridge"'s first season ends with the character forging a dead man's signature to get a five-year contract with the BBC. That morbid gag mirrors the accidental murder that concludes "Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge," Coogan's first solo outing as Partridge.
Coogan only flays himself more rigorously in Winterbottom's films. In "The Trip," he dreams about being teased with unattainable jobs working with everyone from the Coen brothers to the Wachowskis. And in both that film and "Tristram Shandy," he constantly spars with co-star Rob Brydon. Coogan constantly belittles Brydon, but, as "Steve Coogan," he lustily envies how comfortable Brydon is with his relatively modest success. After Coogan stammers that he wouldn't want Brydon's "mediocre" career, Brydon tells Coogan, "You're desperate to be taken seriously."
When it comes to Coogan and Brydon's onscreen relationship, the line between fiction and reality is supposedly very thin. ""He called me a prick the other day," Coogan told Laura Barton in The Guardian. "It was slightly unwarranted, just because I'd annoyed him, and I made him apologise to me. And I meant it." He went on, "I quite like people, in between laughing, to feel discomfort. I'm not sure why. Rob is less comfortable with discomfort. I think he walks away from conflict, whereas I gravitate towards it."
For anyone unfamiliar with Coogan's work with Winterbottom, his tendency to send himself up might seem evasive, and self-indulgent; but Coogan knows exactly what he's doing. In "Tristram Shandy," he laughs at the idea of being more responsible with his roles by essentially interviewing himself. Coogan, playing "Steve Coogan," is interviewed by Tony Wilson, the character that Coogan played in "24 Hour Party People," his first collaboration with Winterbottom.
In an interview with Variety's Stuart Miller, Coogan plays off of the writer's skepticism by joking, "I exploit my own vanities and character flaws and heighten and exaggerate them. It's slightly cathartic." It's the "slightly" qualification to Coogan's answer that suggests he's winking at rather than mocking his audience. He wants his viewers to be in on the joke, like how he named a recent comedy special "Steve Coogan: As Alan Partridge, and Other Less Successful Characters." To Barton, Coogan says that his style of comedy is his way of, "'[…] trying to find the meaning out of life beyond a cheap laugh,' Coogan tells me. 'It's not cynical — and don't get me wrong, there's some great cynical comedy. But there'll be some love within it. And if you're making anything with a comic element and you put love in it, perversely, it's the most avant-garde thing you can do.'"
That sense of affection is fittingly in "The Look of Love," particularly in Raymond's comically strained relationship with Deborah. Raymond wants to support her, making her the centerpiece of one of his otherwise all-nude musical revues. But Raymond's a laughably terrible father. When he catches her snorting coke with a colleague, he admonishes her to only buy the best quality stuff. And when he toasts her at her wedding, he jokes, "She might not be double-D, but to me, she'll always be triple-D: my darling daughter Deborah." It's an especially funny joke given how hard Coogan has fought in real life to get the tabloids to stop advertising where his children go to school. Even the star's Wikipedia page makes a point of emphasizing that Coogan is a good father, or at least good enough to want to, "[live] in Brighton to be close to Clare, his daughter from his relationship with solicitor Anna Cole."
But just as "Steve Coogan" can't allow himself to be happy with what he has, Raymond in "The Look of Love "also can't see his relationship with his daughter for what it is. He wistfully tries to start over with his grand-daughter at film's end, bringing her to the same sweet shop that he once took Deborah to years ago. But it's not the same, and he knows it, watching from his car while his grand-daughter picks out cakes. If "The Look of Love" is a tragicomedy, it's only because Coogan can't stop laughing at his own lack of perspective.
Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been published by Esquire, The Village Voice and Press Play, where he wrote "Ten Bat-Takes: The Ten Best Interpretations of Batman."
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