A tawdry film undermined by a misguided narrative structure, Lovelace claims to tell the true story of Linda Boreman, who became a celebrated porn star but later reported she had been subjected to physical and sexual abuse by her husband, Chuck Traynor.
Picking up Linda’s story in Florida in 1970, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman appear to declare their intentions by choosing to play Elvin Bishop’s song “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” recorded in 1975 and used judiciously by Paul Thomas Anderson in his film about the porn industry, Boogie Nights. Lyrically, it’s on the nose in its prophetic intentions — singer Mickey Thomas wails “I didn’t care how much they cried, no sir / Their tears left me cold as a stone” — as well as its (apparently) obvious reference to Anderson’s 1999 epic.
Granted, most viewers will not immediately realize the song they’re hearing was not released for another five years, but instead think of it, if they recognize it at all, as being “an old song” that fits the era. And it may be that is what was intended by Epstein and Friedman. But it bespeaks an attitude that is more interested in conveying a message or creating a feeling than in recreating the past.
That makes it a vital point to keep in mind when considering the film as a whole, because Lovelace wants to tell “the truth” and yet also question “the truth.” To accomplish this, the screenplay by Andy Bellin first rolls out what we might call “the legend,” or the story as it was popularized in the 1970s, which is that the rather innocent Linda Boreman became notorious for her oral sex skills as Linda Lovelace in porn sensation Deep Throat. The film crossed over from X-rated theaters and rode a crest of curiosity into mainstream media. She enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame, achieving the zenith of celebrity by sharing a private audience with Hugh Hefner (James Franco), though hints are dropped throughout that Linda is not altogether comfortable doing porn, and that her smarmy husband, Chuck Traynor (Peter Saarsgard), is physically abusive and controlling.
Then the film rewinds and shows the sordid “truth” as described by Linda in her 1980 book Ordeal, revealing that Chuck was both physically and sexually abusive, that Linda was trapped in a horrid marriage in which her husband did not hesitate to sell her sexual favors, and that she did not share in any of the hundreds of millions of dollars that Deep Throat ultimately earned.
The net effect of the uneven structure is zero. Lovelace comes across as smug and condemnatory, both of pornography and of its own audience. Many nudge-nudge hints are dropped in the first section of the film, so when the film goes back to fill in the sordid details, it feels schematic and exasperating. It’s as though the filmmakers wanted to seduce the audience into thinking that Linda’s life in pornography was all glory and sunshine, and then pull the rug out and wag their finger — ‘See? It was awful for the poor thing. Did you enjoy the porn-y parts? How awful of you! How could you?’
Circling back to the anachronistic use of “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” cements my view. Linda is portrayed as a hapless victim, and this perspective is reinforced with repetition. Her salvation comes through the intervention of others, and we never get a sense of why or how she came to the conclusion to write about her experiences or, indeed, how she got to a place where she could enjoy a suburban life with a husband and children. That all occurs off-screen, perhaps because it doesn’t fit into the very narrow vision of the film.
The only saving grace of the film is Amanda Seyfried’s performance as Linda, which is layered and incredibly affecting. Lovelace as a whole is a depressing, oppressive experience, but that doesn’t negate Seyfried’s fine work, nor that of Sharon Stone as her strict mother, Robert Patrick as her befuddled father, Peter Sarsgaard as her revolting husband, or Juno Temple as her left-behind friend. A host of other actors (including Hank Azaria, Chris Noth, Bobby Cannavale, Adam Brody, and more) contribute a range of uneven cameos.
The film opens today at Angelika Dallas, Angelika Plano, AMC Stonebriar, and Studio Movie Grill Spring Valley.