There are many ways a biopic about Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace could have gone: lurid exploitation, polyester odyssey through a world of leisure suits and bell-bottoms, bleeding-heart redemption narrative, graphic examination of the porn industry or awareness-raising manifesto about domestic violence. Unfortunately, in attempting to hit all the targets but refusing to commit to a single approach, Lovelace directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman emerge with a film simultaneously stifling and empty, its structure inane and its content as lifeless as a blow-up doll.
Lovelace begins in 1970, with 21-year-old Linda (Amanda Seyfried) living in South Florida with her ultra-religious parents (including an alternately stiff and histrionic Sharon Stone). She's modest but impressionable, a girl who blushes when her friend mimes oral sex but is easily roped into go-go dancing at the roller rink. There, her shimmies catch the eye of Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard, with some sweet '70s facial hair), who runs a titty bar and quickly seduces Linda by going down on her in her parents' kitchen. Pretty soon, the dark-haired, freckle-faced Linda—described by a sleazy producer as "a sexy Raggedy Ann"—has become an unlikely porn star in an unlikely crossover hit. Tada!
But then—though not before James Franco makes a distracting cameo as an eyebrow-waggling Hugh Hefner—we double back and see it all again, this time with Chuck's physical and sexual violence laid bare. He'd seemed dodgy before, but now ominous music plays whenever the camera pans across his seething face. It's as if the directors play the first act for titillating shits and giggles, after which they attempt to plunge viewers into remorse for condoning such smut. Problem is, the first act is no fun, the second feels like a choppy outtake reel, and neither half offers much insight about Deep Throat or its players.
Seyfried does an admirable job eliciting our sympathy, playing a young woman afraid to disappoint yet inherently resilient, but she's not served by the clunky, boring material. There's another Lovelace biopic in the works, and even a musical version coming to New York this fall. I hope those projects go deeper than this one, which is that rarest of things: a film about porn that penetrates nothing at all.
Critic's Grade: D+