The People vs. Larry Flynt Review

by "Kah Seng" (perrin AT cyberway DOT com DOT sg)
August 15th, 1997

The People vs. Larry Flynt

It shows that America remains ambivalent over the nature of its political system. No major surprise, when J. S. Mill in his Victorian classic On Liberty could not make up his mind over liberal democracy either. The Americans are wrought by the archetypal paradox under which they exist, the supreme contradiction between the right of the one and the right of the majority. Small wonder that Hollywood's most compelling movies have oft been on the struggle of the individual-underdog against some larger collective oppressive - witness Braveheart, Born on the Fourth of July, Rocky, First Blood, Clear and Present Danger, JFK, the list goes on.

There's little of that in Singapore - we are barred access to Playboy and Penthouse both on and off line, though the government's been long worried about the younger people getting "Americanised" and advocating individual rights and parliamentary opposition.

The People vs. Larry Flynt locates the political debate within the greatest social taboo in America - sex. Does pornography have a right to exist and circulate? Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, thinks so, and obviously so too the U.S. Congress which last month threw out a Bill to curb pornography on the Net. But even with such actions, Americans remain undecided. The Oscars apparently shunned the movie because it was an embarrassing and sensitive livewire.

What they have ignored is actually a great picture. Woody Harrelson as the lead character reprises his role as a to-hell-with-morality, to-hell-with-the-law, and to-hell-with-the-system anti-Christ that we last saw in Natural Born Killers. And he is outrageous and convincing as a nihilistic atheist who nonetheless loves his ex-stripper wife dearly. The latter is played with abandon, conviction and sensitivity all at once by Courtney Love, who is the real star of the show and really snubbed of an Academy Award Best Actress nomination, if not of the award itself. Edward Norton plays their jerky lawyer. The relationship between Harrelson and Love brings out another great paradox - superficially they are immoral outcasts who've had it coming; Woody gets shot and becomes paralysed from the waist down, and Courtney dies of Aids. God's damnation. But in the powerful love they have for each other, each standing by the other in turn, the two leads highlight the question how much is the nihilist still a moralist and (in the American context) a Christian, if they can love and care, and feel just like anyone else on a personal level. Friedrich Nietzsche once talked about how the atheist must uncover for himself the full consequences of atheism by ridding himself of all moral-Christian influences. To go beyond good and evil.

This is a great picture, no doubt, and I love it personally. Because it is moving, funny, ends with open American optimism blah blah. But I like it and admire it because it comes from a fine American tradition that dares to raise difficult questions, and call into doubt ideas and doctrines that otherwise are used as catchphrases. There are times when movies go beyond the story they tell and reflect something of hidden realities. This movie is not so much about Larry Flynt, but about Americans and American society.

Grade: A+



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