Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: "Lovelace"

Directors: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Runtime: 92 minutes

Within the first 15 minutes of Lovelace, the second fiction film from documentary directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the only word that comes to mind is "workman-like." Despite avoiding the sleaze of its time period and subject matter, this biopic/behind-the-scenes look at the life of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace goes through the motions from start to finish. Capable performances, especially Amanda Seyfried's lead role, are enjoyable and hint at a richer, more insightful story. As it stands, however, Lovelace is content to be ordinary down to the bone, mostly for worse. 

As Lovelace herself remarks late in the film, she only spent 17 days in the porn industry. Yet the shadow of her breakout film and performance - the first porno to break into the mainstream - looms large over her life. That's a fascinating dynamic to explore, and touches on the ways in which celebrity figures can be defined by the briefest moments in their lives (especially when those moments are mistakes). Yet Andy Bellin's screenplay, determined to cover everything as though checking events off on a list, is more concerned with simply getting from point A to point B, without taking time to explore the emotional and thematic undercurrents of his characters. 

Once the film peaks, with Deep Throat becoming a phenomenon, Lovelace starts to lose the already muted momentum that its first 45 minutes kicked off with. Epstein and Friedman do a perfectly adequate job of telling the story, but their techniques are no more insightful that the typical surface-only approach found on a Lifetime movie. As the story takes a darker turn, detailing Linda's fallout with first husband Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard), Lovelace starts to drag, rather than compel. What little spark the film musters up is strictly relegated to the scenes involving the production of Deep Throat, largely stemming from the comedy the film wrings out of the pervy director (Hank Azaria) and producers (Bobby Cannavale and Chris Noth).  

Seyfried, meanwhile, is left to navigate a character whose rich dramatic potential is squandered by the material. Seyfried's breakout performance came as the stunningly air-headed Karen in 2004's Mean Girls, a film that used her comedic gifts to excellent effect. Since then, the actress has been trying to move over into meatier roles. Lovelace should have been the one. When Linda sees the promotional shots taken of her for Deep Throat, Seyfried captures the quiet awe of a repressed young woman finally seeing herself as beautiful. Unfortunately, the script provides her with too few of these moments, even skimping on her frosty relationship with her dad (Robert Patrick) and ultra-religious mother (Sharon Stone). 

Yet as Lovelace focuses on the rise of a porn icon (one who would go on to become an anti-pornography crusader), it manages to neglect the beginning and end of her story. It avoids outright sleaze, but it also has little interest in true drama other than Chuck being abusive and controlling towards his wife. Though never exploitative, the scenes of abuse (which include Chuck essentially paying a group of men to gang rape his wife), are given far too much weight. They make Linda's dramatic arc into one of a victim, and the shrift her fight against domestic abuse gets only makes the issue more troubling. 

Even the star-studded ensemble can't do much to make something more out of Bellin's crushingly simplistic writing. Sarsgaard (who recently completed a stellar turn on AMC's The Killing) makes for a good charmer-turned-abuser, but no one else is really give the time or depth to make an impact outside of a one-liner. What should have been one of the most impactful moments - Linda's reunion with her parents - is little more than shrug-worthy. It's certainly not the cast's fault. One can see the effort being put in by Stone and Seyfried to make the moment work, and Stone almost saves it with a funny remark. But it's too little and far too late. In its standard 90 minute framework, Lovelace succumbs to the hallmark problem of many modern biopics: it tries to cover everything, does it too fleetly, and winds up feeling like a Cliffnotes version of a much richer narrative. 

Grade: C/C+

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