James Franco appears around the midpoint of "Lovelace" to clarify exactly what's wrong with the movie. He plays Playboy titan Hugh Hefner circa 1972, when Hef would have been about 46 years old. Franco is 35 and looks about 25. He also looks deeply remorseful and sheepish as he strains to deliver "come to papa "-type pick-up lines to porn starlet Linda Lovelace (Amanda Syefried). At that point, I was expecting Nick Cannon to show up as Redd Foxx.
Directed by the great documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, "Lovelace" seems meticulously researched and passionately written. It wants to advocate for women like Linda, who found herself seduced into pornography by a smooth pimp who happened to be her husband, and who molded her into the most famous porn star of the 1970s. "Deep Throat" grossed millions of dollars, none of which went to Lovelace. Mobster financiers, her abusive husband and other exploiters pocketed most of the money.
This film is told in sympathy with the Linda Lovelace who reclaimed her real name, Linda Boreman, and became a feminist anti-porn activist years after her sole porn credit. Unfortunately, despite its passion and purpose, it's executed with so many wrong, false, stale and routine creative decisions that it runs aground by the time Muppet Babies Hef saunters in. Even a "Rashomon" structure that withholds Linda's point-of-view of certain pivotal events delivers its revelations with the bland efficiency of a TV newsmagazine. Standard "'70s movie" music cues crossfade to tell us when a scene has completed its business.
And yet "Lovelace" has some good things going for it. Amanda Seyfried is a natural, quietly explosive actress, and she has a heartbreaking way with close-ups. She brings truth and beauty to a trailer-ready line like "You made me beautiful," said with brimming eyes to the oddly courteous guy (Wes Bentley) shooting her porno posters. Seyfried also turns the mandatory sequence showing the blissful early days of Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) and Linda's courtship into a study of a young, shy, deeply insecure girl breaking out of her conservative family's shackles. The notes she hits aren't surprising, but they are clean and resonant. As Chuck, Peter Sarsgaard does his best to match her intelligent naivete with predatory charisma. The hair and costume departments do their best to back him up with spectacular '70s grooming and leather jackets that might have been stripped off of Thomas Jane's cokehead horndog in "Boogie Nights."
The film finds irony in how Chuck, posing as a sexual liberator and a romantic, became Linda's cruelest jailer. In a sweet, gently didactic scene, he kisses Linda's C-section scars and laughs at suburbia's "idiots" who set arbitrary, punishing standards of beauty and puritanical standards of conduct. Later, this moment resounds painfully when Linda learns to stifle her great sadness and disappointment at Chuck's combination of cruelty and sentimental neediness. His begging for her devotion only looks like begging for forgiveness.
"Boogie Nights" also haunts this film's party scenes and instances of porno satire, further clarifying why, for all of its modestly attractive moving parts, "Lovelace" is more of a basic cable presentation than a movie. Paul Thomas Anderson's unrestrained affection for his characters and his sense of visual play in every scene of "Boogie Nights" made opera out of a fictional porn star's dead-end life. When it was fun, it was ridiculously fun. When it was tragic, it was heart-stopping.
This is less a problem of dealing with only the surface than of skimming instead of luxuriating in it. "Lovelace" treads too lightly. It's understandable that the filmmakers would feel a bit timid about indulging satire and sensationalism when handling a real person's life story, but if that was the case, they should have reconsidered casting brilliant character actors Hank Azaria and Bobby Canavale as the greasiest mob-affiliated pornographers in Miami, and having them groan things like, "Ohh, now that is art!" while watching Linda perform her soon-to-be-famous sex trick on co-star Harry Reems (Adam Brody). Since the purpose of these early, breezy, jokey scenes is to set us up for a mighty fall into gruesome reality, the more "Boogie Nights" comic confection, the better. "Lovelace" sets up jokes it's too terrified of deep offense to knock down.
What is a fictional movie for, as opposed to a documentary? In a story as seemingly straightforward as Linda Boreman's, I think the point should be to explore relationships. What was it really like on the set of "Deep Throat"? Who were the real people turning the camera and holding the mikes, and how did they behave/think/feel/dream in that situation? What laughs, pains, embarrassments and insights did they share with Linda? What else was there to the mob guys who colluded with Chuck Traynor, besides slick pompadours and Chris Noth‘s sneering grin? (Noth, after years of leading man and noble cop roles, churns harder at his goomba character than even Tony Danza prissed up his gay crime lord character in the film "Illtown.")
Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick play Linda's oppressive parents who eventually come to understand their role in their daughter's deliverance to hell. Each gets a George C. Scott "Hardcore " moment of tearful teeth-gnashing at what's become of their daughter but also, refreshingly, at their role in her desperate spiral. Such scattered moments of heat and light just don't add up to a forceful or vital movie about a subject that deserves one.