Written by: Andy Bellin
Directed by: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, James Franco, Peter Sarsgaard
Reviewed by: Sean Daly
There is a scene in the inexplicably short Lovelace that revolves around the title character simply driving a car along a majestic highway. This particular scene, however, isn’t original to the film but a re-creation of the opening of Deep Throat, the Seventies pornographic movie around which Lovelace largely revolves. It plays out over a few frames, effectively allowing the viewer to identify the person they will be following over the course of the movie. The scene hardly represents cutting edge storytelling but it’s a common, basic approach that even the filmmakers of a porno from over forty years ago understood.
Compare this with a very early scene in Lovelace in which Linda (ably played by the fearless Amanda Seyfried) and new boyfriend Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard, doing simmering menace like only he can) leave a beach party. In the very next frame, they arrive by car at the home of her parents, with Traynor exasperatedly asking her why she hasn’t spoken the entire ride home. While showing a plodding, silent ride from beach to house wouldn’t have been prudent, at least a few moments of awkward silence prior to Sarsgaard’s line would have made the viewer feel the discomfort rather than merely being informed of it. This approach, unfortunately, is indicative of the hyper pacing and pervasive telling-over-showing issues that doom the experience of viewing Lovelace to numbness.
Lovelace is directed by the successful, longtime documentary team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, continuing their foray into feature film, and written by relative newcomer Andy Bellin. The film is essentially broken into three different sections following a brief summary of the astonishing success and controversy surrounding Deep Throat. The first section consists of filling the audience in on Linda’s background before getting into porn. While many filmmakers and writers would understandably perceive this part of the story to be the least exciting, they would also recognize it as the most crucial in terms of providing insight towards future plot developments and making a lasting impression on the viewer. Epstein, Friedman, and Bellin clearly don’t share this view.
In this first section, we meet Linda’s religious parents, meek John (Robert Patrick) and raging Dorothy (a barely recognizable Sharon Stone, giving a standout performance likely to garner award consideration), who have moved her to Florida from Yonkers after Linda became pregnant and was duped by Dorothy into giving the child up for adoption. Despite Linda’s troubled past, we learn her to be something of a “prude” and “drag” in the words of her best friend, Patsy (Juno Temple), as shown by her reluctance to sunbathe facedown without a top and awkward go-go dancing at a local roller skating establishment, where she first bonds with Chuck Traynor, the man who alters her destiny forever. The slimily charming Traynor owns a bar-restaurant with “good food and pretty girls.” Despite the obvious warning signs, Linda leaves home to marry Traynor, sending us into the second section of the just-under- 90-minute film less than 20 minutes into it. If you feel as though that’s an extraordinary amount of plot to cover in such a brief span, you are correct.
The film’s second section revolves around the public’s Poster Girl for the Sexual Revolution viewpoint of Lovelace, a mythical status later debunked. During this section, Lovelace is portrayed as a blossoming rube while Traynor comes off as sleazy and manipulative, yet not overly harmful. To help pay his legal costs after getting arrested for running a prostitution ring out of his “titty bar”, Traynor sets Linda up for an audition with two adult filmmakers (Bobby Cannavale and Hank Azaria), who initially find her too ordinary to cast. The filmmakers, however, have a change of heart after seeing Lovelace’s impressive fellatio skills, giving birth to Deep Throat. Deep Throat, with its semblance of a plot and amusing dialogue, becomes a smash—with Lovelace as its breakout star. Photo shoots, radio interviews, and a direct audience with Hugh Hefner (James Franco) at a packed Playboy mansion screening of the film do an effective job of showing what seems to be a twisted Cinderella story . . . only for us to learn in the third section Lovelace was not a willing participant in any of it.
A graphic of Six Years Later appears on the screen and Lovelace, dressed down, is talking to a lie detector administrator (played by Eric Roberts, whose remarkable performance almost thirty years ago in Star 80, a vastly superior film with similar subject matter, put him on the map), as she must pass a polygraph for her publishing company. (The end product, Ordeal, is the book which forms the basis for much of the film). Lovelace proceeds to flashback to plot occurrences which took place in the film’s second section, only this time from Linda’s decidedly different perspective. We learn Traynor was not only a con artist but also an abusive monster that pimped her out and forced her into porn. Linda, who fears for her life, submits to Traynor’s every whim. Not even a call to her mother provides respite, as she is coldly advised to stay with her husband.
The scenes of Linda being abused by Traynor are intended to be gut-wrenching but largely fall short due to the aforementioned pacing issues and lack of character development. Scenes of her being hit, raped, shoved into a scalding hot shower, and suffering the indignity of signing an autograph for a police officer who should be rescuing after yet another assault at Traynor’s hands, fall short of disturbing, both because they are presented in such lightening quick-fashion and the viewer was never given the chance to invest in Linda during the misguided first section of the film. This is a shame, as the gifted Seyfried has a well-established ability to evoke sympathy in a viewer. Nowhere is the opportunity to make a lasting, haunting impression more lost in Lovelace than late in the film, when Linda is duped into going to a hotel room for what ends up being a gangbang. The scene, which should be harrowing and difficult to watch, is instead predictably rushed, as barely ten seconds after the camera pans to an adjacent room with half-a-dozen men, they are in the bedroom with Linda. The result is a fleeting impact that leaves the viewer’s consciousness almost as quickly as it entered it.
It is obvious the filmmakers cared about their subject matter and wanted to make a strong statement decrying sexual exploitation and the sometimes dubious nature of celebrity (particularly those who surround and drive it), making their decision to edit the movie down to less than 90 minutes all the more puzzling. Lovelace represents a lost opportunity but is redeemed to some degree by the filmmakers’ ambition in presenting the film in non-linear fashion, the efforts of the two leads, Stephen Trask’s affecting score, and Stone’s tremendous performance. I give it 1-and-a-half guys.