The People vs. Larry Flynt Review

by Scott Renshaw (srenshaw AT leland DOT stanford DOT edu)
January 2nd, 1997

    A film review by Scott Renshaw
    Copyright 1996 Scott Renshaw

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, Brett Harrelson, Crispin Glover, Richard Paul, Donna Hanover, James Cromwell. Screenplay: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.
Producers: Oliver Stone, Janet Yang, Michael Hausman.
Director: Milos Forman.
MPAA Rating: R (nudity, sexual situations, adult themes, profanity) Running Time: 130 minutes.
Reviewed by Scott Renshaw.

    THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT is such an intriguing and entertaining film biography that it is almost a shame that it had to have a "message." Milos Forman's study of "Hustler" magazine publisher Larry Flynt is an examination of the challenge of accepting potentially offensive material as protected speech under the Constitution, and as such it is not in the same class as solemnly liberal films which congratulate themselves for championing radical notions like "racism is a bad thing." Still, there is a slickness to the way Flynt's legal battles are portrayed which makes it too easy to choose sides. When the film focuses on Flynt as a character and on his relationships, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT soars. When Flynt becomes an icon, it slips.

    The film opens in 1952 -- with young Larry and his brother Jimmy selling moonshine in Kentucky -- then flashes forward twenty years to find Larry (Woody Harrelson) and Jimmy (Woody's real-life brother Brett Harrelson) selling a different vice. Their Ohio-based Hustler strip bar is only barely staying afloat, however, and Larry starts up a glossy newsletter to help promote the club. The newsletter unexpectedly takes on a life of its own, and "Hustler" is born, much to the consternation of conservative civic leaders. In 1977, Flynt is arrested for selling pornography, and takes on young civil rights attorney Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton) for his defense. Though he ultimately wins his first case, there always seems to be another one close behind, as Flynt becomes a favored target for anti-pornography legal action. His legal troubles are only part of his life's challenges, though, as a would-be assassin's bullet paralyzes him and his troubled wife Althea (Courtney Love) struggles with her own demons.

    Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski also wrote the script for Tim Burton's ED WOOD, and FLYNT demonstrates once again that they have a marvelous sense for crafting structure out of eccentricity. Flynt is rendered variously as a libertine capitalist selling what America is buying, as a half-hearted Christian convert and as a bitter, unpredictable paraplegic, yet every facet of his character becomes part of a fascinating whole in Woody Harrelson's performance. It is a dynamic piece of acting: sly and blisteringly funny one moment, quiet and emotional the next. He is brought most fully to life in both respects through his interactions with the cast's other two stand-outs, Edward Norton and Courtney Love. It has taken Norton only a year to become one of the most impressive young actors in film, and he is top-notch as the attorney and unlikely friend who tries to rein in Flynt. Love, meanwhile, simply gives a clinic in creating a complex character. She is dazzling even as Althea dissolves in a losing battle with AIDS, and she appears not at all concerned over whether or not the audience likes her. Few actors can muster that kind of fearlessness.

    THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT is frequently hilarious as it explores the characters' relationships and challenging in its reluctance to offer embraceable heroes. When it hits the courtrooms, the lines become more clearly drawn, to the film's detriment. The self-aggrandizing pornographer is too easy to side with when opposed by a villainous judge, or such obvious symbols of hypocrisy as savings and loan magnate/ soon-to-be felon Charles Keating (James Cromwell); Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul), whose libel suit becomes the basis for Flynt's Supreme Court challenge, is rendered similarly as a scowling buffoon. Giving Flynt's enemies a face which is easy to laugh at diffuses the point of the film when it is no longer "the people" who are versus Flynt, but simply some nasty stuffed shirts. Flynt's speech is deserving of protection not because he is better than his accusers, but because it shouldn't matter who is better; when Flynt tells reporters that a victory for him would be important because he is "the worst," it is fairly obvious that Alexander, Karaszewski and Forman don't agree.

    All the legal wranglings come to a thrilling conclusion, however, in what may be the best courtroom scene I have ever seen. As Isaacson argues Flynt's case before the Supreme Court, the courtroom becomes an opportunity not for sermons, but for the exchange of ideas. At that moment, the issues at the heart of THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT matter profoundly, with Norton's passionate defense shattering the earlier dichotomies of right vs. wrong. It made me more disappointed in an earlier scene in which Flynt gives a sincere speech to civil libertarians which is presented without a hint of irony. Larry Flynt, manic smut-peddler, makes for a much more compelling protagonist than Larry Flynt, First Amendment hero.

    On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 porn in the U.S.A.'s: 8.

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