Given their combined track record of documentaries chronicling oppression such as The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads, one might guess that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman believe their second dramatic feature, Lovelace, to be sufficiently hard-hitting and harrowing to watch. It’s not, as the generic beats of Andy Bellin’s Lifetime-movie-grade script and the camera’s minimal witness to the physical abuse and sexual assault in the life of Linda Lovelace (née Boreman), star of the 1972 porn smash Deep Throat, flatten and dilute her story of victimization and redemption. A suburban Miami girl next door discovered at a roller disco by the funky “titty bar” owner and all-around fuck-up (Peter Sarsgaard) who became her husband, manager, and pimp, Linda (a suitably wide-eyed and fragile Amanda Seyfried) attains unlikely celebrity as the cinema’s first heralded practitioner of fellatio, her skill not only marveled at by her director and producers (Hank Azaria, Chris Noth, and Bobby Cannavale bringing the sleaze broadly), but by international audiences, garnering punchlines from Johnny Carson and Bob Hope.
The conceit of Bellin’s screenplay is to stage Linda’s rise to adult-film queen as a nearly sprightly sex comedy in its first act (full of outsize Nixon-era fashions and hair), then in leaping forward to a polygraph verifying the facts of her 1980 confessional memoir, to retrace the action and lay bare the degradation and coercion that lay beneath the fame and Malibu lifestyle. But the putative seaminess is familiar and predictable, and Epstein and Friedman’s overqualified supporting cast distracts; a fleeting glimpse of Eric Roberts reminds that when Sarsgaard’s Chuck Traynor pulls a gun on his wife, it lacks the blunt menace of Bob Fosse’s Star 80. (James Franco’s brief impression of Hugh Hefner’s lockjawed pretension does amuse, and his private-balcony request of Linda implicates Hef as a pimp who simply knows how to dress.)
The film’s emotional fulcrum is meant to be its heroine’s stunted relationship with her Catholic mother, played by a fully deglamorized Sharon Stone as a scold who instructs the bruised, fugitive Linda to return to her abuser (“What do you think we are, Protestants?”), only to melt with remorse years later while watching her newly feminist child recount a life of male exploitation in TV interviews. But this easy psychology rings as hollow as the rest of this all-star tour of smut-industry casualties; Stone and her ex-military husband (Robert Patrick) register as emotionally icy villains or bewildered, well-meaning parents simply according to the dictates of melodramatic formula. Perhaps the filmmakers, lost in the period’s cultural ornaments, could’ve found the beating heart of Linda’s tragedy if they’d made it an ahistorical experiment without garish music, mustaches, and furniture, but that might not be the ideal approach for securing Chloë Sevigny for a five-second cameo.