I had low expectations for Lovelace, because it's a biopic and biopics are pretty much my least favorite kind of pics—and that includes aspics, dick pics, pick-up artists, sweet pickles, and that evil Jean-Luc Picard clone who flew the Enterprise dangerously close to a pulsar like a TOTAL GOOBER. Fortunately, Lovelace was a pleasant surprise. What could have been a goofy, soulless movie-of-the-week trading on '7os kitsch and tittering porniness (what I expected, in a nutshell) turned out to actually be a story with an arc and a heart and a point. As biopics go, that's rare.
When I say "pleasant surprise," I don't mean the subject matter. Porn pioneer Linda Lovelace's life—as she told it in her 1980 memoir Ordeal—was an unrelenting slog through sexual coercion, psychological abuse, and violence of every stripe. And according to Gloria Steinem, Lovelace-the-movie didn't go far enough. But the truth, as less successful biopics have evidenced over and over again, is messy, and it's hard to tie that mess up with a bow and sell it as a Hollywood commodity. Part of Lovelace's success is that it plays with exactly that stumbling block—the unreliability of truth—and makes a statement about our culture's stifling eagerness to believe comfortable falsehoods.
Let's back up. If you don't know, Linda Lovelace was the star of the 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat—the tale of a sad, unfulfilled gal who just doesn't "get" sex, until a doctor discovers that her clitoris is located in the back of her throat and the only medicine is to POKE A WANG IN THERE POSTHASTE. Deep Throat took porno to new heights with a 42-page script, earnest character development, and relatively high production values, and Lovelace was the breakout star who carried the film. At the time, it was such a massive hit that it almost achieved mainstream crossover validity. But instead of riding that buzz to porno superstardom, Lovelace sank back from the spotlight and eventually re-emerged as an anti-pornography activist.
Lovelace, starring the supernaturally luminous Amanda Seyfried (seriously, girl is an extraterrestrial), tells Lovelace's story—from teenage shrinking violet to reluctant blowjob queen. In a move that some will probably find gimmicky but that worked smartly on me, the film actually tells her story twice, back to back.
The first half of the film follows Lovelace as she tans in the backyard, gets yelled at by Sharon Stone (Sharon Stone HATES TANNING), rollerskates through her dying childhood, marries a charismatic pair of sideburns named Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard, the Michael Jordan of freaky menace), learns to blowjob, falls serenely into porn, makes Adam Brody prematurely goof all over the place because her blowjob science is too tight, dreams of becoming a "real" actress, engages in girl-talk with Debbie Mazar, hangs out with Hugh Hefner (James Franco, exhibiting an inappropriate level of Franco-iness), and develops a sudden reticence on the brink of superstardom.
There are flashes of unease here and there—an unexplored bruise, a glazed complacence in Seyfried's eye, a venomous glance from Chuck—but, you know, she seems okay. Right?
Now here comes the gimmick, like it or not. Framed as Lovelace recounting her life story to a polygraph examiner (at the behest of her publisher), the second half of the film retraces the first half's steps, pulling back just enough to reveal the dark corners we missed. Damning cuts are restored to life. Certain scenes are extended—we discover that a joyous moment between newlyweds turned, moments after we cut away, into a harrowing marital rape:
"You're my wife. Don't trip out."
"You really hurt me, Chuck."
"That was passion. I love you."
Strange lapses in time and logic—important events that seemed to take place off-screen (when did Linda consent to that porn career?)—are filled in with gang rape, cocaine, and forced prostitution. Behind the scenes, shit was rotten.
Lovelace isn't perfect—I'm not sure I'd rate it as a must see or a masterpiece. I'm not totally clear on its politics, which flirts with the paradigm that all sex workers are fallen women who need rescuing. And, as Steinem complained, it has more than a whiff of Lifetime Original sanitized schmaltz about it. But Seyfried and Sarsgaard keep things desperately human—you feel Linda's prison—and the final product is a smart illumination of how hungry we are to swallow easy narratives and shameless prurience, because it's easier than rooting out difficult realities. Most agonizing of all, maybe, is the realization that Linda's abuse turned her into a more masterful actress than her acting career ever would. Oof.