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The biggest laugh in Lovelace isn’t Amanda Seyfried’s performance—anyone who’s seen Chloe knows that if the innocent-looking Mamma Mia! actress can realistically and rather explicitly get it on with Julianne Moore, she can probably also look convincing sword-swallowing Adam Brody’s dick. No, what you’re going to chuckle at is the text after the 1970s-funk-filled opening credits: “Based on a true story.” Is there anyone on this planet—above a certain age, that is—who isn’t familiar with Linda Lovelace?
For the ignorant, the late Lovelace (née Linda Boreman) was the star of Deep Throat, an industry-changing and highly successful 1972 porno. (Fun fact: Deep Throat’s original title was The Sword Swallower.) It was the first skin flick with decent production and a plot; in it, Lovelace plays a woman whose clitoris is in her throat, which leads her to learn how to give spectacular, penis-encompassing blow jobs in order for her to experience sexual satisfaction.
Which is ironic, because at the beginning of Lovelace, a preporno Linda is shown talking with her friend Patsy (Juno Temple) and saying oral sex is “disgusting.” She rethinks her opinion—or maybe just her resistance—when she meets Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), a mustachioed scuzzbucket with whom Linda falls in love. He’s charming at first, boosting the timid young woman’s self-esteem (“You don’t think I’m a drag?” she asks when they first meet). Soon they’re living together, and Chuck eventually persuades her to get on her knees. And, because he’s secretly in the porn business, he tapes it—and then shows it to his colleagues, including director Jerry Damiano (Hank Azaria), who had previously said Linda isn’t right for the business but changes his mind when he sees evidence of her deep-throating. “That’s art!” Jerry proclaims. The rest is X-rated history.
Written by Andy Bellin and co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who also collaborated on Howl), Lovelace arrives earlier than another Boreman biopic, Inferno: A Lovelace Story with Malin Akerman. The majority of the film focuses on Lovelace’s rise to fame, and only the final chapters detail—in flashback, an odd way of telling the whole story—how abusive Traynor was, battering her, forcing her to perform in more movies, raping her, and letting her be raped.
If the filmmakers intended their creation to send a message of female empowerment, they give it rather short shrift, using one scene to depict generational differences (when Lovelace asks her mother, played by an unrecognizable Sharon Stone, for shelter, mom asks her “Whaddya do to make him angry?” and instructs her daughter to “obey him”) and the tail end to show Lovelace years later, now remarried, speaking out against pornography, and writing a book about her experience.
This makes Lovelace feels like a watered-down made-for-TV movie, despite all the boobage. Seyfried gives a solid performance as Lovelace, recalling the arc of Dakota Fanning’s Cherie Currie in The Runaways as a once-shy young woman who is pulled out of her shell. And Sarsgaard, as usual, is terrific as Chuck, embracing the character’s dirtbaggery and ability to switch on the good-guy charm as needed. The film is packed with stars in minor roles, including James Franco (as Hugh Hefner!), Chloë Sevigny (blink and you’ll miss her), Chris Noth, and Bobby Cannavale.
The cinematography is appropriately dark, with most scenes taking place at night or in seedy locations, and the ’70s styles are painstakingly re-created. There are some heartbreaking scenes, including Lovelace’s talk with her mother, when she finds out that her father (Robert Patrick) saw the film, and when Patsy suspects something’s wrong but her friend is too afraid to admit it. But the script doesn’t offer much character development. Traynor is good until he’s bad; Lovelace is introverted until she gains confidence. There’s no mention that Lovelace did pornography before Deep Throat or how many movies she performed in afterward. Lovelace’s star power is undeniable. Ironically, it’s just a bit too shallow.