The People vs. Larry Flynt Review

by Steve Rhodes (rhodes_steve AT tandem DOT com)
January 12th, 1997

    A film review by Steve Rhodes
    Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

RATING (0 TO ****): *** 1/2

    "If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, it will protect all of you," explains pornographic magazine publisher Larry Flynt, played with bravado and panache by Woody Harrelson.

    Two time Academy Award winning director Milos Forman (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and AMADEUS) decided to make a red, white, and blue film about protecting American freedom, and he chose the unlikely person of Larry Flynt to be the protagonist. One wonders if Forman had a list of candidates from David Duke on, but Flynt does fill the bill as being a suitably unlikely hero. You may have never thought about someone like Flynt being the guardian of your liberty, but in Harrelson's sympathetic portrayal of Flynt, he makes a compelling and cogent case.

    The beauty of the film is that, even if you hate everything "Hustler" magazine stands for and even if you disagree with Forman's logic in the story, the film itself is so audaciously fun that it is a certain crowd pleaser. No one has ever insulted people, especially courts, with such intense bravado as Flynt does in the movie. You can be sure that the picture will garner many an Academy Award nomination as it has already made most 1996 top ten lists.

    After a brief start showing Flynt selling moonshine as a kid, the film skips ahead to Flynt in the 1970s running a sleazy strip joint in Cincinnati. He falls for a new stripper named Althea Leasure and brilliantly played by Courtney Love. She asks if it is true that he has slept with every stripper in the club, and, when he concedes it is true, she claims that she has too. She will go on to become his lifelong business partner, lover, wife, and constant supporter, but when she first comes into his life, she has all the markings of a one-night stand.

    Larry starts up "Hustler" as an offshoot from the club. The magazine almost goes under until an Italian photographer sells him nude photos of "Jackie O." After that, he is as rich as Croesus for the rest of his life. Although he will eventually be almost fatally wounded and spend much time in seclusion like Howard Hughes, he will maintain a fabulously wealthy lifestyle. When his parents first come to visit his mansion during a party-turned-orgy, he explains, "These are my friends -- lots of money, lots of friends." Since Althea and two of her girlfriends are making love on the bed where his parents are going to sleep, he sends the women to another room with promises to join them later in their fun.

    His magazine's idea sessions are provocative. They decide on someone to ridicule that week in an offensive sexual parody. Their targets range widely from the Wizard of Oz to Santa Claus to Jerry Falwell, played by look-alike Richard Paul. Whenever someone suggests that something is too sick to print, Flynt ridicules them and makes sure that the obscene cartoon or story runs exactly as proposed.
    Eventually, Larry runs afoul of the law and loses. His young lawyer, Alan Isaacman, played with determination by Edward North, can not pull this one out. "25 years!" exclaims Flynt. "All I'm guilty of is bad taste."

    As you can already see, the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski is full of deliciously funny morsels of dialog. The wording manages to be simultaneously humorous, believable, and insightful. Combine this with the tour de force acting by Harrelson, Love, and North, and you have the makings of a great movie.

    People prosecuting poor pornographer Larry are not shown in the best of lights as this is a fairly one sided presentation. Typical is one of his judges who looks exactly like Jabba the Hut and is just about as reasonable. Still, Larry makes succinct and convincing arguments. As he puts it, "If you don't like Hustler magazine, don't read it." "I'm not trying to convince you to like what Larry Flynt does," confesses his own lawyer in his summation to the jury. "I don't like what Larry Flynt does."

    Whenever Larry gets in trouble, and he gets in trouble a lot, costume designers Arianne Phillips and Theodor Pistek like to dress him in the flag or at least the colors of the flag. He also wears obscene T-shirts designed to ridicule the judges during his trials.

    In a large convention center made up to look like a Presidential nominating convention, Larry address a crowd. Behind him is a huge screen projecting images of death and sex, and the hall is filled with red, white, and blue streamers. "What is more obscene?" he asks rhetorically. "Sex or war?" He then goes on to point out that if you take a picture of someone committing a murder and put it on the cover of "Time", you may win a Pulitzer Prize. If you take a picture of someone committing sex or just a picture of a completely naked woman and put it on the cover of a magazine, you may be arrested and thrown in prison for obscenity.

    Easily the strangest episode in Larry's life is when the then president's sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover), converts Larry to Christianity. He decides he wants God brought into the magazine. Even Althea thinks he has gone too far this time, arguing, "Nobody on this planet wants their religion and their pornography together." Eventually this phase will pass. "The reign of Christian terror is over," screams Althea to the magazine's staff. "We're going back to our roots. Porn is back."

    Believe it or not, I have merely scratched the surface of this epic drama. I did not get to the Charles Keating (James Cromwell) as worse than Larry Flynt subtext, the funny role of Clinton aide James Carville as an indignant prosecutor, the Supreme Court case, and the many drug scenes.

    In perhaps the best scene in the show, Larry's lawyer quits in disgust at having such an unruly client. "I'm your dream client," argues Larry, laughing off his lawyer's resignation. "I'm rich, and I'm always in trouble."

    You may or may not buy Larry Flynt as the saviour of your freedoms, his own daughter ridiculed the idea this week, but the movie is great and compelling cinema. Words do not adequately describe its scale or the effectiveness of its humor.

    PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT runs 2:07, but its breadth made me think it was much longer. It is rated R for sex, nudity, violence, profanity, and hard drug usage. This is a hard R film and would be appropriate for teenagers only if they are quite mature. Unbelievably, many families in my audience brought their young kids. There were a dozen kids ages 3 to 7 near me. Whenever lewd behavior would start on the screen, the kids would ask their parents what was happening, but they were consistently told to shut up. I felt like grabbing the parents by their throats and asking if they had lost their minds. For adults and mature teenagers, I recommend this film strongly to you and give the picture *** 1/2.

______________________________________________________________________ **** = One of the top few films of this or any year. A must see film. *** = Excellent show. Look for it.
** = Average movie. Kind of enjoyable.
* = Poor show. Don't waste your money.
0 = One of the worst films of this or any year. Totally unbearable.
REVIEW WRITTEN ON: January 6, 1997

Opinions expressed are mine and not meant to reflect my employer's.

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