The People vs. Larry Flynt Review

by Edward Johnson-ott (PBBP24A AT prodigy DOT com)
December 3rd, 1997

The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, Brett Harrelson, James Cromwell, Crispin Glover. Directed by Milos Forman
Rated R, **** stars (out of *****)

Review by Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly
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In one scene from "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," the Hustler Magazine publisher appears at a self-staged free speech rally. As graphic photos flash on a huge screen behind him, Flynt strides confidently across the stage, delivering a rousing speech over what really constitutes obscenity. The spectacle was reminiscent of the scene in "Patton" where the General spoke in front of a giant American flag. Both scenes were stirring, larger than life, richly entertaining, and felt totally like contrived set pieces for big Hollywood movies. Overall, that sums up "The People Vs. Larry Flynt." The film is a wildly entertaining hoot which, despite being based on fact, feels like a big, phony Hollywood movie.

The son of a Kentucky moonshiner, Flynt (Woody Harrelson) ran away from home and ended up operating strip clubs in Cincinnati. There he met Althea Leasure (Courtney Love), a bisexual stripper who became his fourth wife and the love of his life. To bolster interest in his clubs, he started a sexually explicit newsletter that grew into Hustler magazine. Flynt, along with the magazine’s rag-tag management team, headed by his brother Jimmy (played nicely by Woody’s real-life brother, Steak & Shake commercial veteran Brett Harrelson), viewed Playboy magazine with contempt. They mocked its slick articles and airbrushed photos, striving to keep Hustler focused on "what guys really want," explicit photos that would make a gynecologist squirm, and extremely crude humor. The film’s prime example of Hustler’s attitude is a cartoon depicting characters from The Wizard Of Oz in an orgy, giving the audience an opportunity to giggle at Flynt’s "naughtiness." Director Milos Forman conveniently ignores the magazine’s frequent attempts to derive humor from child molestation, racism, and endless scatological cartoons.

Flynt’s rag labored in well-deserved obscurity until he published nude photos of Jacqueline Onassis, which brought the magazine international attention, big money and the attention of conservatives. An obscenity bust followed, the first in a long series of battles between Flynt and the law. Lawyer Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton) enters the scene, hired by Flynt’s wife. Norton, an exceptional actor, is wonderful as the beleaguered lawyer trying to navigate the legal system while dealing with Flynt’s increasingly childish and bizarre behavior. In court, we meet the sputtering conservatives, headed by Citizens For Decency leader Charles Keating (James Cromwell.) As Keating blathers about Flynt’s immorality, the camera slowly moves in for a close-up of his name tag, inviting the audience to gloat at the notion of morality being trumpeted by Keating, who was later convicted in a $2 billion S&L fraud. Flynt’s other prime foe is Rev. Jerry Falwell, who sues over a Hustler parody involving him and his mother having sex in an outhouse.

Tragedy strikes as Flynt is shot by a would-be assassin, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. A dark period follows, as Flynt and Leasure hole up in an L.A. suite, strung out on pain killers. Flynt eventually kicks drugs, but Leasure succumbs to addiction, and later, AIDS. After watch Falwell on TV, describing AIDS as a punishment from God, Flynt directs his lawyer to take the Falwell case to the Supreme Court, leading to the film’s climactic courtroom scene.

"The People Vs, Larry Flynt" is at its weakest when moralizing on free speech and lionizing Flynt. "If they’ll protect a scumbag like me, then they’ll protect all of you," declared Flynt. He’s right, of course, but the director Forman cheats in portraying the opposition as little more than hypocritical buffoons. He also cheats in casting Woody Harrelson as Flynt. Harrelson is an attractive, charismatic man, and his strong performance paints Flynt as a colorful folk hero. Even a cursory look at the real Flynt, who is making the talk show circuit, and plays the judge in an early courtroom scene, shows a bloated, morose and bitter man. An accurate portrayal of Flynt would have made a more difficult film to watch, but a richer one.

Despite its flaws, "Flynt" is a fast moving, rousing movie with some terrific acting, especially by Courtney Love, whose vibrant performance will likely garner an Oscar nod. The story may be candy-coated, but it’s still delicious candy.

Copyright 1997, Ed Johnson-Ott

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