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Arts & Entertainment

Ray Greene's Sundance 2013 report: 'Lovelace' is an acting showcase, but lacks passion

Actors Adam Brody, Amanda Seyfried and Peter Sarsgaard pose for a portrait during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Actors Adam Brody, Amanda Seyfried and Peter Sarsgaard pose for a portrait during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Off-Ramp contributor and documentarian Ray Greene is bundled up in Park City, filing missives from Sundance 2013. Listen Saturday at noon for his report on "20 Feet from Stardom," or listen here.

"Lovelace," the new biographical film about 70s porn star Linda Lovelace, is a solid acting showcase for two of our more appealing young performers. Peter Sarsgaard excels himself as Lovelace's oleaginous husband Chuck Traynor, while Amanda Seyfried plays the title character with mischief, strength and vulnerability contending for mastery in her quicksilver flying saucer eyes. Casting may in fact be this movie's primary achievement. In addition to the two terrific leads, we get a hilarious Hank Azaria as "Deep Throat" pornographer Jerry Damiano, a delightful turn by Adam Brody as Lovelace's leading man Harry Reems, and some casting against type that works beautifully, especially that of Chris Noth as a petty Mafioso "producer" and Sharon Stone, unrecognizable as the judgmental Catholic mother who's overbearing influence the young Linda tries to flee.

For all of these very real virtues, there's something flat and cautious in the work of directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman that makes Lovelace's sensationalistic life story come off frequently flat and dull. The early 1970s were a weird period in American cultural life -- when the Sexual Revolution was peaking to a point where "classy" porn films like "Mona the Golden Nymph" and "Behind the Green Door" could be advertised widely in daily newspapers and exhibited in mainstream moviehouses and drive-ins. "Deep Throat" -- Linda Lovelace's one porn film -- punched that zeitgeist square on the nose by being simultaneously outrageous and satirically self-conscious about it. It dealt with a taboo subject -- oral sex -- by using the ridiculous premise of a woman born with her clitoris in her throat, and even gave a passing nod to the era's burgeoning feminism by setting the Lovelace character on a journey to achieve her first orgasm -- a radical quest at the time.   

What's missing from "Lovelace" is any sense of a specific milieu -- the very thing that made Paul Thomas Anderson's still definitive portrait of the era "Boogie Nights" such a revelation. Oh sure, there's an abundance of accurate period details -- the hair is frizzy, the fonts are rounded, the mustaches abundant and hairy -- but they don't really register as much more than familiar movie tropes about the time. Lovelace's rise to pornographic superstardom feels generic. Take the skin and the Johnny Carson monologue clips out of the equation and we might be watching Ruby Keeler dance her way to the top of the heap in "42nd Street." The porn world itself is painted with the broad brush of farce -- everybody is either a budda-bing mobster type (Noth, Bobby Canavale) or has unrealistic artistic pretensions  (Azaria), which is good for a few punchlines but also sucks away any sense of tension or dread. Was there anything alluring about the world of 70s porn? Anything truly menacing? Caught between the current hipster neutrality about old school erotica and the perennial tendency of the current to score cheap laughs at the expense of the past, "Lovelace" doesn't really care to say.

Perhaps this is a conscious choice made by Epstein, Friedman, and screenwriter Andy Bellin to emphasize the status of Lovelace's abusive and coercive husband Chuck Traynor as her story's primary monster. According to Lovelace, Traynor forced her to appear in "Deep Throat" using death threats and physical violence -- an assertion supported by her refusal to do any additional pornographic movies after she'd gotten out from under Traynor's thumb. In a structural trick that carries real insight about abusive men, "Lovelace" is divided into two segments -- one in which Traynor seems like an eccentric, easygoing and only slightly dangerous romantic who sweeps Lovelace off her feet, and another in which the same situations are revisited, with the abuse that went on behind closed doors now featured and explored.

We've seen the true story of an abused erotic superstar and the vicious coward behind the scenes before, and Epstein and Friedman know it. It was "Star 80," it was made by a genius named Bob Fosse, and it starred Eric Roberts, who has a prominent cameo in "Lovelace" as an attorney administering a polygraph test. It's nice that Epstein and Friedman tip their hat to the surface similarities between "Lovelace" and "Star 80," though at heart and in terms of impact their own movie could not be more dissimilar from Fosse's far more harrowing work. An embittered show-business veteran himself, Fosse had an informed and animated feel for both the magnetic pull of erotica and the terrifying id-feuled energies it was capable of unleashing, and he used every aspect of his considerable craft -- impeccable framing, superb performances, edits so brisk and rhythmic you feel you can dance to them -- to bring an entire world to life. In contrast, and despite some fine acting, "Lovelace" is a faked orgasm -- a pale simulation, lacking in passion, danger, and all the raw red stuff of actual life.