The People vs. Larry Flynt Reviewby Mark R. Leeper (mleeper AT lucent DOT com)
January 8th, 1997
THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT
A film review by Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 1997 Mark R. Leeper
Capsule: This is a high-level and frequently
very rushed look at the career of wildcat
pornographer Larry Flynt with emphasis on his
battle against government censorship. Milos Forman gives us a more superficial treatment of the legal
issues to make way for a familiar doomed love story and other more salable aspects of Flynt's career.
In doing so he makes this a much less engaging
film, albeit more profitable, than it might have
been. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4).
As portrayed in this new film, the first directed by Milos Forman in seven years, Larry Flynt is a free spirit who spent most of his life drifting. He makes the decision to publish a magazine with pictures of the dancers at his sleazy Cincinnati strip club, just as a publicity stunt, after that things pretty much just happen to him. The magazine become popular; Flynt becomes rich and famous filling the demand; the local government decides to prosecute him; his cause becomes a major civil liberties case; he becomes a national figure in the anti- censorship movement. In the course of all this he occasionally tries to make decisions that will change the course of his life and his magazine, but none of these decisions ever sticks. He decides to have his Hustler magazine mix fundamentalist Christianity with pornography, but somehow the combination just does not sell. Flynt fires the entire executive staff of his own magazine only to be ignored. He decides that he and his wife, Althea, should kick their drug habits and though he succeeds himself, he finds he has no control over her. Flynt seems to want to scuttle himself when he to be as uncooperative as possible with his lawyer, but his defense goes on in spite of himself, all the way to the Supreme Court. During all of this Flynt shows no admirable traits at all beyond loyalty to Althea.
The film opens with a prologue set in the early 1950s in Kentucky where a young Larry Flynt is already giving the public what it wants by making and selling his own moonshine. Cut to two decades later and Flynt is running the Hustler Club in Cincinnati. He has the idea to have a magazine to promote his club. Once that is in place he decides to make his HUSTLER magazine what PLAYBOY is not, a magazine overtly aimed at the shotguns and pickups types who come to his club. While at his club he meets dancer Althea Leasure (Courtney Love) who shows immediate romantic interest in Flynt. The publicity says that Flynt is an unlikely hero for a film and that is a true statement. But the hero of the film is Alan Isaacman the civil liberties lawyer who took his principle of defending the First Amendment to the Supreme Court in Flynt's name, often frustratingly sabotaged by the childish antics of Flynt himself. Had there been some nobility shown in Althea beyond her initial loyalty to Flynt, she might have made an interesting character. But eventually she will show herself to be even weaker than her husband.
Forman tells the story of Larry Flynt, but never gives us much of an emotional investment in his character. Flynt is never anything but selfish in the course of the film. With other characters his love for Althea might have been touching, but only occasionally is there any chemistry between the two of them or any feeling that it is good that these two people have found each other. Interestingly Courtney Love made her film debut in SID AND NANCY, in some ways a very similar film with very similar problems. Forman may have seen parallels between Flynt and McMurphy in his ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, but he was able to capture an emotional core and a nobility in McMurphy that seems lacking in Flynt. Even when his lawyer is winning in court, Flynt seems determined to play the Bad Boy and to derail the proceedings. Forman's telling of the story of Flynt moves too quickly with too little explanation of what is going on. Flynt will be in jail in one scene and out the next organizing a free speech rally without explanation of how he got out of jail. Other obvious production details seem to be ignored. Edward Norton, playing the idealist lawyer, seems not to age at all over the course of the many years the film covers (not including the prologue).
Woody Harrelson will probably never be a great actor. Here Flynt is supposed to behave in an eccentric manner, and Harrelson does. Flynt is supposed to be superficial and have a fly-weight intellect easily influenced by others, and Harrelson does that sufficiently too. And he is supposed to be juvenile in unexpected places, and he is. On the surface this does not seem like a difficult role to play and Harrelson is just fine. Curiously he is out-performed by the much less experienced Courtney Love as Althea.
THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT has positioned itself to be an engaging film on the meaning of the First Amendment of the constitution. It also is supposed to be a little titillating, though in a style much more subdued than is Flynt's enthusiastic approach. Frankly the film does a better job of the former than the latter. I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.
Mark R. Leeper
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