Sundance Review: 'Lovelace' doesn't go deep enough despite Amanda Seyfried's efforts
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's porn-fueled biopic premieres at Sundance
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Under the name Linda Lovelace, Linda Boreman starred in "Deep Throat," the most successful hard-core sex film ever made, as well as a handful of less successful and less legitimate adult ventures. For a brief period in the 1970s, Lovelace was a public figure with a high degree of fame and notoriety.
In less than a decade, she had become an aggressive anti-porn advocate, writing multiple books about the evils of the industry that quite literally gave her her name.
For years, Hollywood has tried to tell Lovelace's story, with numerous writers and directors and stars circling and abandoning different projects, perhaps recognizing the difficulties of adequately depicting a woman mostly famous for her aptitude with blowjobs and then her subsequent disgust at said aptitude.
It's a tale that finally had its premiere on Tuesday (January 22) night at the Sundance Film Festival with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's "Lovelace."
Screenwriter Andy Bellin has solved many of the contradictions in Lovelace's life by ignoring them entirely. "Lovelace" is a flat and superficially arced film that relies on a little linear trickery to create the illusion of complexities that are sorely lacking. The resulting film is superficial and flat and wastes a transformative, gung-ho performance by leading lady Amanda Seyfried and an amusing supporting cast that seems to be appearing in four or five different movies.
When Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita" was released in 1962, it drummed up curiosity with the tagline "How did they ever make a movie of 'Lolita'?" I suspect a similar tactic could be used to generate initial interest in "Lovelace" before audiences discover the answer to the question "How did they ever make a movie about Linda Lovelace?" is "As blandly as possible."
More after the break...
Bellin's "Lovelace" script is all about compression. One second, Linda is a nervous prude sunning in the backyard with her more adventurous bestie (Juno Temple, whose life destiny seems to starring in small movies and vanishing from bigger movies at the half-way point), the next minute she's meeting Peter Sarsgaard's Chuck Traynor, who teaches her everything she needs to know about oral sex, and then she's appearing in "Deep Throat" and becoming a sensation. Then, "Six years later," she's submitting to a polygraph test and decrying her former life, prompting the story to circle back on itself to show a darker underbelly we didn't know about.
Except that we pretty much did know about it. While Sarsgaard's performance has slightly varying shades of "wacko," it's all still wacko nonetheless. That Linda Lovelace fell for the wrong man who made her do bad things and that she eventually regretted them is the simplest and least interesting interpretation of her story, but it's the only version Bellin and Epstein & Friedman seem to have been able to bring to the screen.
Most of the storytelling cleverness has been devoted to figuring out how to tackle the inevitable sexuality.
The simple and most effective answer was: With humor, rather than eroticism. It helps that Sarsgaard and Seyfried have no real chemistry, even at the beginning of their courtship, so when he coaches her in fellatio with the advice "Don't forget to breathe," it has all of the heat of Mr. Miyagi urging Daniel to wax on and wax off. It becomes a point of comedic pride that every male character in the movie is agog at Lovelace's deep-throating aptitude, even though nothing can be shown. If you're laughing, you aren't being aroused and if you aren't being aroused, the MPAA probably isn't being offended and that's why "Lovelace" presumably won't have any trouble at all earning an R-rating.
It's a similar path to the one taken in the first half of "Boogie Nights," before things get dark and the emotional stakes rise. With no interest in shedding an iota of light onto why "Deep Throat" was as successful as it was, "Lovelace" takes the "People in '70s porn were wacky" approach to things, with colorfully silly performances by Bobby Cannavale as producer Butchie Peraino and Hank Azaria as director Jerry Damiano. Best of all is Adam Brody, sporting an excellent porn-stache and expertly wooden line-readings as Harry Reems. Might I propose that Brody is good enough here that somebody should research Reems' post-"Deep Throat" legal difficulties, his drug addiction and his religious transformation and make a different, Brody-centric Reems film?
Speaking of different films... Chris Noth and Sharon Stone, playing Joan Crawford as Lovelace's mother, are in an ultra campy "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" style dramedy, while Robert Patrick lands the two most genuine emotional moments by welcomely underplaying.
What keeps "Lovelace" consistently watchable, if not as interesting as it ought to be, is Seyfried. Thanks to hairstyle, costuming and an accent which, if I'm being generous, the character was sometimes covering up, Seyfried captures more different versions or shadings to Lovelace than the script does. The actual Linda Lovelace was a good deal more disturbed and disturbing than anything his film wants to get into, but Seyfried does very well with Lovelace's initial innocence and does as well as she's allowed to with the darker material. Looking gorgeous throughout, Seyfried is comfortable getting physically naked (or frequently topless, at least), but I wish the script had let her get more emotionally naked.
Epstein & Friedman are just more at ease when they can concentrate on surface-level things. Top-notch documentaries, the directors have struggled to get past embalmed biopics with their scripted films. "Lovelace" is full of easy costuming and soundtrack choices, as well Eric Edwards' intentionally '70s-ugly cinematography, but when it comes any sort of critique of pornography, or engagement with Lovelace's eventual critique, they have nothing to say. It's amusing to me that James Franco, who pops up here playing Hugh Hefner, is also at Sundance with the far more rigorous (and positive) porn documentary "Kink."
Because "Kink" is dogmatic (and damned explicit), I don't expect it will get any mainstream distribution out of this -- an HBO late-night slot or perhaps a splashy PlayboyTV pick-up are the only options that make sense -- while "Lovelace" could be a big-ticket acquisition as soon as tomorrow. Expect a little pre-release controversy, followed by post-release apathy for a film that has some good features, but could have gone much deeper.