'Lorena': TV Review | Sundance 2019

Could benefit from some smarter cutting. Heaven help us, that's not a pun.
2/15/2019

Executive produced by Jordan Peele, this four-hour documentary eventually finds interesting things about the infamous Lorena Bobbitt case, but it needs more and better focus.

When I mention Lorena, a four-hour Amazon documentary about Lorena Bobbitt from executive producer Jordan Peele, after the winces or laughter, I typically get three questions:

1) Why now?

2) Why Jordan Peele?

3) Does it need to be four hours?

To dispense quickly with those answers:

1) If the 15th anniversary of a mediocre film's release is worthy of an oral history in our nostalgia-based culture, surely the 25th anniversary of the penis amputation felt around the world is worth a documentary or three. And there's more to it than that.

2) I'm not exactly sure, though if Jordan Peele wants to use this current moment of clout to enable long-form documentaries, all praise to him.

3) No. No, it does not. Or at least not these four hours.

The frustration of Lorena is that there are many reasons the story is relevant today and worthy of closer examination and reexamination. Many of them are covered here. It just takes too long to get there.

Lorena is actually directed by Joshua Rofe and, over the better part of its first three hours, it just rehashes the events of June 23, 1993, that led to Lorena Bobbitt cleanly slicing off husband John Wayne Bobbitt's penis, tossing it out the window of her car and spawning a pair of high-profile trials and an incalculable amount of nervous and probably inappropriate laugher, given that Lorena's professed justification was temporary insanity stemming from years of alleged rape and domestic abuse. For his part, John Wayne Bobbitt denied those accusations and continues to in new interviews that feel like a waste of time in a documentary that shouldn't be his.

Those first three hours are tremendously frustrating because the two Bobbitt trials were already media circuses, hers televised in its entirety on Court TV. Both Lorena and John Wayne were frequently interviewed at the time — THR's Kim Masters, who scored the first Lorena Bobbitt interview for Vanity Fair, is a featured talking head — and neither has a perspective that has changed or evolved appreciably over two-plus decades. Lorena even opens with a Lorena being interviewed by Steven Harvey. Unsolicited advice: If the hook of your documentary is access, don't start your story with clips showing how little exclusivity you have.

While I'm offering unsolicited advice to documentary filmmakers: Give some consideration to why you're using reenactments. Is it just because you need filler footage to cut away to? Maybe that's a sign you need to either be more aesthetically creative or find a different subject. The reenactments in Lorena do nothing other than provide faceless, dully shot visualizations of events without generating any emotional or visceral response.

Rofe has interviews with many of the key figures in every bizarre part of this case, from the doctors who helped reattach John Wayne Bobbitt's penis to neighbors who testified at various trials to two members of each jury giving insight into their respective verdicts. Again, befitting their centrality in a media circus, nearly all of the talking heads sound like they've given comparable answers and made the same jokes for 25 years. Alan Hauge, Lorena's media representative, gives some of the more interesting interviews talking about how figures like Barbara Walters and Geraldo Rivera pursued their blanket coverage.

If I had to guess as to Rofe's goal in spending so much time covering and recovering the crime and two trials, I'd say that he's trying to put all of those all-too-easy jokes on ice. And yes, that's a penis-on-ice joke and I should be ashamed. What's shocking is how many people in positions of authority and respect are reduced to giggling and cracking wise when they talk about the Bobbitt case. Doctors. Nurses. Reporters. Attorneys on both sides. Some have the good sense to look embarrassed. The first episode is a lot of that, and then each subsequent episode gives more details on the relationship between Lorena and John and the years of psychological and physical abuse that she testified to (and he denied under oath). I don't doubt that you have to address and defuse the idea of the Bobbitt case as a punchline before you can get to the more provocative idea of the case as a snapshot of a nation in cultural flux.

Although there are hints of it earlier, it's the fourth episode that finally gets to a substantive engagement with how domestic violence was treated in the early '90s, the number of states in which marital rape was either not criminalized or required a complicated and steep burden of proof. Here, the talking heads don't view Lorena as a joke. They view her as a key data point in a conversation that also included Anita Hill and other women who, by action or deed, caused people to confront the apathetic or callous attitudes they had when the Bobbitt story broke.

Disappointingly, the documentary doesn't have an interview with any of the comics who dined out on cheap dick jokes for months. I'd give almost anything for Rofe to have grilled Howard Stern on the countless John Wayne Bobbitt interviews in which they chortled about Lorena's sanity and the details presented in the case.

Instead, Rofe keeps getting distracted by John's tawdry, frequently disgraceful use of the spotlight himself. Were John at all introspective, the long, tabloid-y stretches dedicated to his porn career and time at a Nevada brothel might be interesting. But he's not. After a while, I grew really sick of John popping up to say banal things on noncontroversial subjects and then not saying anything at all about his darker chapters.

Despite the title — de-sensationalized via the removal of Lorena's married name — Lorena struggles to really be Lorena's story even in that last episode. She was incredibly young and still learning to express herself in her second language when the story exploded, and the passage of time has been kind to her. But Lorena is, unfortunately, a documentary that really could have used refinement in its argument — reached and yet still insufficient in that fourth episode — and a more robust focus on its anchor.

Production company: Amazon Studios
Director: Joshua Rofe
Producer: M. Elizabeth Hughes
Executive producers: Joshua Rofe, Steven J. Berger, Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, Thomas Lesinski, Jenna Santoianni
Editors: Allan Duso, Poppy Das, Morgan Hanner, Azin Samari
Music: Julian Wass
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Events)

253 minutes

Premieres Feb. 15 on Amazon.