Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone
When I flippantly used the word “upskirt” in a piece about Fast & Furious Tokyo Drift, it became the top search that led people to this blog. A test a couple of weeks ago to see if the word “creampie” would have a similar effect in a review of Red 2 proved just as successful. What then to expect from Lovelace, a biopic of Linda Boreman (who would become Linda Lovelace), the star of the most famous porn film on the 70’s; Deep Throat? A veritable cornucopia of prospective top searches present themselves. Guess I learned the easiest lesson in the book; sex sells.
On the surface the idea of a pornstar biopic sounds very juicy, especially one set in the 70’s. Bad hair, cheesy lines, garish outfits… all underpinned by some groovy source music, right? Memories of Boogie Nights come flooding back. That movie, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, saw the auteur director planting his flag in the ground, staking his claim as a major new player in American filmmaking. Comparing his achievement to Lovelace quickly becomes absurd. This film is not nearly as ambitious. In fact, it serves a different purpose altogether. Go into this movie expecting some sort of spiritual companion piece, and you’ll probably be largely disappointed. Although you might not think so at first…
In truth, to begin with, they share similar DNA. We quickly get to know an American teenager who feels constrained by their parents. In this instance it is Linda (Amanda Seyfried), under the thumb of her domineering mother (an unrecognisable Sharon Stone) and longing for a freer life as a consequence. She meets a man, Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), who offers her a way out… and into the tawdry and illicit underworld of pornography. In love with her white knight, our young wallflower has her innocence stripped away bit by bit. But it’s all fun and free-spirited, right? The men who organise her ‘choices’ have their jokes and their funny reactions as Linda learns the talent that is destined to make her (in)famous. And in the audience we smile and play along. Pornography is fun. Lovelace is fun. We’re all having a fun time, even if it is all a little bit naughty. Hey, we’re having fun because it’s a little bit naughty, right?
Up until this point Lovelace – co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman – ticks along with the usual tropes of the biopic. Events feel a little like cliff notes, but everything’s pretty solid and fast-moving. The stylistic quirks of the period are accentuated, everyone’s having a good time. If it’s a little pedestrian then nobody’s going to mind. Linda is portrayed through these scenes as rather naive, Chuck comes across as something of a creep, but harmless enough as he’s permanently baked on weed. If there’s any sense of serious unease, it’s underplayed.
It’s at about the halfway point, however, that Lovelace takes an about turn. In a commendably brave move from screenwriter Andy Bellin, we jump forward to Linda undergoing a polygraph test some 6 years later. We then jump back in time to see those same scenes played out from a different perspective, revealing Chuck as a threatening and abusive force in Linda’s life. Suddenly the porn business doesn’t seem nearly so fun anymore. Lovelace, having ruffled the industry’s hair turns around and gives it a smart smack in the face. It’s an interesting move. Give Lovelace credit, it at the very least attempts to break the biopic out of the narrative cement it so often gets stuck in.
Naturally, this makes the second half of the picture a far more sobering encounter. What started out as a quirky spin on the rags-to-riches American dream turns out to be nothing of the sort. Far from being the poster girl for a sexual revolution, Linda instead becomes a young woman caught in a vicious and misogynistic trap. There is no money for her, no obvious way out, outside of swallowing, literally, what the controlling men in her life have for her at every turn. Unaware of the extent of the trouble that her daughter is in, even Linda’s mother does little to help.
Playing with chronology here may be Epstein and Friedman’s best ploy. Lovelace feels like some sort of awful conjurer’s trick, but what’s behind the curtain isn’t anything we wanted to see. The ugly truth of domestic violence and intimidation becomes a bitter pill to swallow. Seyfried is good as Linda, and this is a comparatively brave role for her to play considering the usual career curve for someone whose star is on the rise as her is. Sarsgaard meanwhile is terribly believable as Chuck, though Bellin’s screenplay doesn’t offer the man much in the way of layers.
What makes Lovelace ultimately problematic is what is left out here. Once the suffering has been dealt with we hop forward in time again to Linda free from the emotional and physical bondage of her brief time in porno’s limelight. Yet how she achieved this freedom and empowerment is not given even one moment of screen time. The insinuation here is that watching a woman take control of her life and find new strength is not nearly as compelling as watching her getting beaten down in the first place. It simply feels like there’s an entire act missing.
As a result much of Lovelace feels somewhat exploitative, at first for all the cheeky winks about Linda’s accommodating oral talents, and then for the grim turn as Chuck’s abusive hold over her is revealed. By editing out how she changed her own circumstances and regained her dignity, Epstein and Friedman’s film simply plays her as a victim. One senses there ought to be more to Linda’s memory than that.
There are plus points of course. It’s engaging throughout, there are some nice cameos (blink and you’ll miss Chloe Sevigny), and there is a genuinely touching father-daughter relationship played out between Seyfriend and Robert Patrick, one that is left deftly under-exposed. And whilst the directors rarely attempt anything particularly distinctive this is, overall, a solidly built production.
But it’s what’s missing the proves fatal here, meaning that Lovelace will likely fall some way short of achieving the kind of lasting notoriety that Boogie Nights or even Deep Throat managed to cultivate. Showing Linda rebuilding her life may not have set the screen ablaze, but without it Lovelace only feels like half a story.