Amanda Seyfried is capable of such open-faced freshness that she could make a porn star look and sound like America’s Sweetheart. That distinction, as it turns out, is key to her playing Linda Lovelace, star of Deep Throat, the 1972 X-rated movie that gave pornography a mainstream foothold in American culture. As Seyfried plays her in Lovelace, Linda is a troubled girl next door with a killer smile.
Following Linda from her early-’70s pre-Deep Throat days to the publication of Ordeal, her anti-pornography book about her career in 1980, Lovelace makes a case for the connections between her troubles and her charms. As a recently transplanted teenager living in Florida with restrictive parents (played by a pair of famous faces from the early ’90s, Robert Patrick and Sharon Stone), Linda’s life changes when she meets Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) at a roller disco. Chuck treats her to an adolescent’s idea of grown-up dating: long nights out, parties on a beach, meeting her parents. Before the latter, he bets her that by the end of the night, her mother will refer to him as a “nice young man.” He’s right, more or less, but it doesn’t matter to Linda’s mother, who refuses to crack a smile. And it doesn’t begin to describe Chuck.
His relationship with Linda is fraught from the start, and eventually turns into a marriage, one that benefits Chuck most plainly. He coaxes her into sexual experimentation and soon makes home movies that double as audition footage for porn-makers Jerry Damiano (Hank Azaria) and Butchie Peraino (Bobby Cannavale). Bankrolled by Anthony Romano (Chris Noth), the team films Deep Throat, a hardcore sex comedy focused on the titular sexual act, reframed as the infamous audacious gimmick. It becomes a cultural sensation.
To this point, the movie provides a quick outline of Lovelace’s rise to her stardom-like notoriety; in its most interesting structural trick, the movie then circles back and fills in some additional details about the relationship between Linda and Chuck. He has already appeared sleazy and opportunistic, but in the flashbacks we see ever more abusive and controlling behavior lurking at the edges of previous scenes. With these revelations, Lovelace becomes a narrative about Linda’s need to wriggle out from under the thumb of her lousy husband.
If even half of what the movie claims is true, the real Chuck Traynor was indeed an awful guy. But presenting him as a boogeyman also feels a little too easy. Compared to Chuck, the rest of the movie’s pornographers come off like regular, sometimes amusing fellows (Damiano, wondering if Linda is too wholesome for porn, compares her to a “sexy Raggedy Ann”). Their levelheaded business sense makes it seem like the movie regards Chuck’s greatest sin as the smallness of his thinking: he holds out to make cheap Linda Lovelace blow-up dolls rather than just signing her on for a lucrative Deep Throat 2 (a film that Lovelace did actually make, two years after the original, but doesn’t receive much acknowledgment here), stalling her career.
The relative innocence of the Deep Throat team and the relentless sunniness of Seyfried’s Lovelace bring to mind the wide-eyed first half of Boogie Nights, with Sarsgaard’s Traynor single-handedly providing the ugly downward spiral that follows. But Lovelace recalls the arc of Boogie Nights (as well as other showbiz biopics) without matching that movie’s momentum; instead, it contains fascinating details, and appealing ’70s texture in the grainy cinematography, without telling much of a story.
That story further suffers when directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and screenwriter Andy Bellin skip from Linda’s break with Chuck to her post-porn publication of Ordeal. Those intervening years seem to be meaningful to Linda, if not so sensational as her time in the spotlight. But the movie indulges in simple cause and effect that seems ripped straight and solemnly from the pages of her book: Chuck was awful, forced her to do porn, and she came to hate it.
This simple trajectory is complicated somewhat by Seyfried and Sarsgaard’s effective performances. But their roles as victim and victimizer are limited by definition, never allowing either actor to exploit their very different and well-known alien qualities: Seyfried, with her saucer eyes, looks not just happy but desperate to feel happy, while Sarsgaard suggests a man always scheming, but never actually thinking ahead. Their performances hint at hidden emotions — depths that Lovelace doesn’t plumb.