The People vs. Larry Flynt Review

by Alex Fung (aw220 AT freenet DOT carleton DOT ca)
December 26th, 1996

    A film review by Alex Fung
    Copyright 1996 Alex Fung

(Columbia-Phoenix - 1996)
Starring Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, James Cromwell, Crispin Glover, James Carville, Brett Harrelson, Donna Hanover Screenplay by Scott Anderson & Larry Karaszewski
Produced by Oliver Stone, Janet Yang, Michael Hausman
Directed by Milos Forman
Running time: 127 minutes

*** 1/2 (out of four stars)

Note: Some may consider portions of the following text to be spoilers. Be forewarned.

Milos Forman's first film since the ill-fated VALMONT, Columbia's THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, is a vastly entertaining (if not particularly enlightening) biopic of Hustler publisher and self-made millionaire Larry Flynt, who became an unlikely champion of freedom of speech rights in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The film unweaves its tale in a chronological order: we open with young and dirt-poor Larry Flynt and his brother Jimmy, peddling jars of water in true entrepreneurial spirit out in the rural outback of Kentucky. Cut to forward in time, where the two Flynt brothers, now young men, are running the struggling Hustler Go-Go Clubs in Cincinnati. The strip clubs are in a dire financial state, and in a last-ditch effort to salvage the operations, Flynt decides to go to a print shop and churn out a promotional newsletter. This evolved into the adult periodical _Hustler_ magazine, creating Larry Flynt a vast financial empire, and the rest is history.
What sets Flynt apart from other publishers is his struggles against those who would have him cease publication of his adult material, and who railed and preached against him - Flynt spent time in incarceration and was paralyzed by an assassination attempt - and his driven, single-minded insistence to buck the system and fight for his freedom of expression, regardless of personal cost.

THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT also weaves in the bittersweet story of Flynt's true love, Althea Leasure, whom he meets as a dancer in his club and later marries, and who devotedly stands alongside him throughout his trials and tribulations.

Considering the serious nature of the film's theme - the importance of the United States' First Amendment - THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT is surprisingly and wonderfully light-hearted and humourous. Much of the comedy is elicited from Larry Flynt's outlandish stunts at his courtroom appearances - some of his chosen apparel is hilarious - and for the most part these elements of the film work far better than some of the more dramatic points, such as an uninspiring Flynt monologue set at a Free Speech rally in front of an enormous American flag dealing with the subjectivity of obscenity.

The film's focus is on the Flynt's many battles over First Amendment rights and freedom of speech, but the heart of THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT is the touching love story between Flynt and Althea. Larry Flynt is shown as being occassionally gruff, harsh, and overtly aggressive with his friends and colleagues, but with Althea, we see his loving, affectionate side. There's a scene where Flynt tenderly takes his ill wife on a ride on his wheelchair that is heartbreaking. Ultimately, the emotional power that the film hits at its conclusion comes not from his achievements from his battles against censors, but from the strength of Flynt and Althea's love for each other.

Woody Harrelson is entirely engaging in what must be certainly a career-topping performance as the irrepressible Larry Flynt. Harrelson plays Flynt with the right mixture of outrageousness and confident stubborness to make him endearing and entirely sympathetic to the audience, and a very compelling protagonist for the film.

Courtney Love plays Althea Leasure in a startling turn, completely raw and impulsive. It's a very solid performance, brash and naturalistic, and Love is extremely compelling; it's difficult to take your eyes off her onscreen, and her chemistry with Harrelson is dead-on.

Edward Norton, as Flynt's straight, level-headed lawyer is often upstaged by his flashier co-stars in THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, much as his counterpart lawyer Alan Isaacman was upstaged by Flynt during many of the courtroom scenes, but Norton shines in his big scene where he addresses the Supreme Court in the climactic scene of the film. One can sense the frustration that Norton's character feels when Harrelson's free-talking Flynt sabotages trial after trial on him by openly speaking his mind, and this results in a heightened emotional punch when Norton's Isaacman has the opportunity to sway the Supreme Court judges.

Milos Forman keeps the film moving - although it runs over two hours, it never drags - and his direction of the film is very effective, eliciting a great deal of empathy for a subject which could be construed by some as extremely sordid and unsympathetic. There's also a great visual technique which Forman uses to indicate the passing of time in one shot, which is both clever and extremely entertaining.

Two minor quibbles with the film - it certainly seems like THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT is in a rush to get to its main theme, with Flynt battling against authorities and the system for his freedom of speech. Consequently, the first thirty minutes of the film, introducing and setting up the characters, seem unduly rushed; perhaps it is merely due to the fact that these characters are so interesting, but I felt it would have worked better if this route was taken in a more leisurely fashion. It also felt like there was a distinctive lack of insight into the inner workings of these characters - the film clearly shows what Flynt, Althea, Isaacman, and Rev. Jerry Faldwell did, and on a superficial level some of their motivations, but it never seemed like one could really understand the characters on a deeper level. For example, why Larry Flynt was compelled by Ruth Carter Stapleton (President Carter's sister) to be born-again is a mystery to me. Then again, perhaps it was to him as well.

These two points don't detract greatly from the film. THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT is certainly among the very best studio-released films of 1996, and works both as a ringing political statement about the importance of freedom of speech and the depths to which Larry Flynt would go to advance the cause of free expression, and as a touching love story.
Alex Fung ([email protected]) |

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