It’s hard to deny its cultural import of Deep Throat, a porno that managed to achieve the kind of cultural saturation normally reserved for towering icons like The Godfather or Citizen Kane – by which I mean it’s been referenced and parodied so many times, you don’t need to have seen it to be familiar with it. This is a pornographic film that, despite being declared “obscene” and costing only a few thousand dollars to produce, made $600 million (if you believe the coda of this film, anyway, despite its questionable veracity). There’s a great story to be told there.
The film’s star, Linda “Lovelace” (real name: Linda Boreman, played here by Amanda Seyfried), went from adult film icon to prominent critic of the porn industry in the space of less than a decade. During the production of the film, she was under the thumb of her abusive husband, Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), who she claims forced her into participation in the film. There’s another great story to be told there – a classic character arc if there was ever one, whether it’s a character overcoming adversity to free herself of a repressive industry, or a woman whose opinion towards pornography is irrevocably tainted by her experiences.
Lovelace would have been a good – even great – film if it did either of these stories justice. Unfortunately it barely scrapes at the eminent potential of its subject material. The film’s failures are best encapsulated in its narrative structure. The first two acts are quite conventional, introducing Lovelace and Traynor before moving into the world of pornography, chronicling the ascendancy of Deep Throat before plummeting back to earth. These first two acts are satisfactory, if underwhelming, but the real flaws of Lovelace become apparent when the film jolts forward six years to enable a flashback to fill in details before the filming of Deep Throat and then starts to move on to the story after the filming before shuddering back to “six years later.” That’s right, there are two “six years later” title cards that each return the film to the exact same time period.
Whatever; unconventional, non-linear storytelling doesn’t have to be a bad thing, even if it’s executed with more clumsiness than a typical porn script. Except that this “unconventional” storytelling is entirely in service of taking a complex, multifaceted story and reducing it to a boilerplate rise/fall narrative. There’s no insight into the social factors at work in launching Deep Throat to its astounding success, nor does the film demonstrate any real understanding of Linda Lovelace despite naming the fucking film after her. Lovelace is content to depict its heroine as a willing participant of the “giddy thrills” of pornography when it’s in rise mode before looping around in flashback to make the abuse she’s suffering at the time explicit. Instead of deepening her experience with nuanced shades, it just highlights the thinness of the script.
Seyfried does her best with the material, but the Linda Lovelace she’s asked to capture isn’t a real person; there’s nothing wrong with a contradictory character, but there’s no connective tissue between her oscillating temperaments. Sarsgaard is similarly adrift, doing a reasonable job with an intensely clichéd abusive husband type. There’s a lot of good actors here doing average work, really; Sharon Stone is unrecognisable as Lovelace’s mother but equally unremarkable, chewing on scenery as a shrill stereotype. There’s a couple highlights – Adam Brody is entertaining as Lovelace’s co-star in Deep Throat, James Franco does a passable Hugh Hefner impression and Robert Patrick does a lot with a little – but pretty much everyone is phoning it in.
The same is true of the filmmaking, which is amazing if compared to pornography but underwhelming otherwise. There’s some nice shots (Linda calling home from a phone booth with the open sea behind her was well done), but too often it feels like a cut-rate Boogie Nights, a comparison that does Lovelace no favours. One shot in particular displays the half-assed nature of the film, a scene of Linda swimming, shot from underwater, that serves little purpose in the film except to include some gratuitous Amanda Seyfried nudity and draw unfavourable comparisons to P.T. Anderson’s modern classic (of course, Boogie Nights is heavily indebted to Goodfellas, but the gap between those two films is much smaller than the gap between Lovelace and Boogie Nights).
There really was a good film to be made here. Why couldn’t we have seen the internal conflict Lovelace was experiencing making Deep Throat? Admittedly, the filming of Deep Throat comprises the funniest, most entertaining section of Lovelace; but layering it with a thin atmosphere of menace and regret would have made it so much more effective. It’s as if directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman lack the confidence to combine frivolity and despair when this is exactly what the story demands. It also seems …dishonest, given Boreman has herself described filming Deep Throat as “being raped.” And the relationship between Chuck and Linda – which seems like the epicentre of the film from the first act – just sort of fades away, with no attempt to portray how she escaped from his thrall. There’s obviously not time to tell all the interesting stories associated with Linda Lovelace but, dammit, couldn’t they have at least told one of them?