The People vs. Larry Flynt Review

by Chad Polenz (ChadPolenz AT aol DOT com)
June 26th, 1997

    A film review by Chad Polenz
    Copyright 1997 Chad Polenz

***1/2 (out of 4 = very good)
1996, R, 130 minutes [2 hours, 10 minutes]
starring: Woody Harrelson (Larry Flynt), Courtney Love (Althea Leasure-Flynt), Edward Norton (Alan Isaacman), Brett Harrelson (Jimmy Flynt), written by Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, produced by Oliver Stone, Janet Yang, Michael Hausman, directed by Milos Forman.

Free speech is an issue we debate every day in the United States, and although our country has been around for 220 years, we still aren't sure what the framers of the constitution mean when they wrote the First Amendment. "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" is an enjoyable, thought-provoking film about a modern battle over the issue. However, sometimes it becomes just as gratuitous as the lives of its characters.

Woody Harrelson stars as Larry Flynt, who most would consider to be the lowest of society as he makes his living from selling "immoral smut." As a child he sold moonshine, and as an adult, he and his brother Jimmy (played by Harrelson's brother Brett) run a strip club. The immediate atmosphere of the film is quite lighthearted and satirical. It doesn't seem like something to take too seriously even when a passionate relationship forms between Larry and a bi-sexual stripper named Althea Leasure (Love). None of these characters are all that likable, but they are not repulsive either.
Larry and Jimmy start publishing "Hustler," a pornographic magazine, but unlike "Playboy," the Flynts' magazine contains much more explicit photographs. Larry knows no one buys such magazines for the articles, and he's just giving his customers what they want - right?


Flynt is arrested for selling obscene literature, and is defended by a young lawyer named Alan Isaacman (Norton) who comes to Flynt because he is a champion of civil liberties. They lose the case and he is sentenced to 25 years, but in the next scene he is out of jail. This is one of my small peeves with this film, as it seems to cop-out often. Flynt is constantly arrested, tried, sentenced, and then released - and it becomes a bit predictable as a whole, but still manages to be interesting.

Although the dominating theme is Flynt's battle for free speech, the film also acts as an offbeat love story. Love is great as Larry's drug addled wife Althea, who is the only woman who seems to love and support him through his troubles. Harrelson and Love do make for an interesting couple, but they seem to be in constant haze of drugs and sex - what is their relationship based on?

The films' biggest problem is the constant flip-flopping between the satirical aspect of Flynt's court battles and the depravity of his relationship with his wife, who eventually is diagnosed with AIDS. Because this is based on a true story I understand why both themes and moods are relevant and important, but they tend to cloud each other's impact. One minute we are laughing at Flynt in the courtroom, and the next we are supposed to be crying over his home life.

The final legal battle Flynt endures is a libel suit issued by Jerry Falwell, which goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Falwell and the Christian right are constantly portrayed as enemies throughout the film, and I think this is shaky ground. The film seems to depict them all as insane zealots, and I really don't think that's true.

Most people don't realize how important Larry Flynt's legal battles really were. His ultimate victory was one involving libel, not pornography, and I don't think the film emphasizes this enough. Whether or not you agree with Flynt's life is irrelevant; what everyone must understand is the U.S. Constitution must protect "scumbags" like him in order to protect everyone else.

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