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People vs. Larry Flynt

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: People vs. Larry Flynt

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love
Director: Milos Forman
Rated: R
RunTime: 120 Minutes
Release Date: December 1996
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Crispin Glover, Brett Harrleson, Vincent Schiavelli, Miles Chapin, Norm MacDonald, Donna Hanover, Edward Norton, James Cromwell

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

It is rare for Hollywood, especially in these politically correct times, to pursue controversial biographical figures who leave a bad taste in societal and political terms. Bad taste could be the title of director Milos Formas's unequivocally great film biography on the king of bad taste - the controversial Hustler magazine publisher, Larry Flynt.

Woody Harrelson plays the flashy Larry Flynt (always wearing loud disco suits) who starts out in Ohio running a plethora of strip clubs with his patient brother (played by Harrelson's real-life younger brother). Flynt loves the job because he can sleep with any woman he wants. He decides to start putting nude pictures of women in newspapers and eventually magazines. At one of these strip clubs, he meets Althea Leasure (Courtney Love), a 17-year-old stripper who becomes Larry's wife and business associate. They have an open marriage - Althea is bisexual and has many male and female lovers, and Larry can screw every woman he meets, as long as he doesn't kiss them. Their love and commitment is deep, and their relationship reminded me a lot of the two lovers in "Leaving Las Vegas" where two people can fall in love despite who they are, and what they do for a living.

"The People vs. Larry Flynt" is not just a love story, it is a hybrid of events in Larry Flynt's life such as the lurid, loathsome porno magazine he created, which has sparked dissent among feminists and the like, the eventual tragic circumstances of the attempt on his life, Althea's death from AIDS, and the Supreme Court ruling centering on his right to Freedom of Speech - the right to mock any politician without being sued for hurting his/her feelings.

Firstly, Forman concentrates deeply on the emotional bond between Flynt and Althea, it is a relationship based not only on respect but also mutual honesty. For example, there's a crucial scene where Flynt decides to become a born-again Christian and attracts the attention of Jimmy Carter's evangelist sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton. Afterwards, he decides to make Hustler a "safer" magazine by eschewing misogynistic, violent pictures of women and replacing them with religious symbolic collages. Althea can't and won't accept his moralistic and religious stance - she doesn't want him to stop being the avaricious publisher he is.

The second half of the movie becomes a springboard for Flynt's Freedom of Speech defense as he is sued for libel by Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (apparently, Falwell was offended by Hustler's depiction of an incestuous relationship with his mother). As Flynt memorably retorts, "If the First Amendment can protect a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you. Because I'm the worst." He is persecuted by all kinds of moral watchdogs, prosecutors, protesters, and political affiliates. Flynt is a hard man to keep down - he continues to fight even after being shot and paralyzed, enduring never-ending trials, and jail. He doesn't stop for a second after being released from jail - he wears an American flag as a diaper to court, throws oranges at the judge, and becomes a political freedom fighter defending his pornographic magazine all the way to the Supreme Court.

Woody Harrelson gives the boldest, most liberating performance of his career - he growls, he spews, he laughs in the face of every judge, and generally offends everyone because he has the right to do so. Harrelson delivers to the fullest extent with verve and a wonderful sense of humor - it is impossible to hate Flynt based on Woody's emphatic, likable performance. Ditto the trashy Courtney Love who brings a fuller sense of empathy and humanity for the smart, vivacious Althea - she is the film's soul and it is a performance on par with Elisabeth Shue in "Leaving Las Vegas" and Sharon Stone in "Casino." Love also has that rare gift for an actress where she doesn't seem to be acting - she is giving us a long look at this woman's tragic, frail human soul (and unlike some naive critics, it isn't due to Love's similar addictive background that gives the performance fire and dynamic energy). Kudos must also go to Edward Norton as Flynt's long-suffering lawyer.

Director Milos Forman has crafted a rich, penetrating, entertaining tapestry of Larry Flynt's life with the help of screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who helmed the similarly ironic "Ed Wood"). What the movie is most successful at is making Larry Flynt into a national hero for all liberals out there. The screenplay, however, omits the most obvious aspect of Flynt's life - he is notorious in this country for his controversial magazine, and not so much for the Falwell case. Throughout the film, we never really see what drove or even inspired him to create such a magazine - the movie opts to present a balanced viewpoint on the issue of censorship but it is a mistake not to include the pictures of bestiality, violence, masochism and, arguably, sheer hatred of women included in his magazine (A brief shot of the infamous cover where a woman is being fed into a meat grinder barely skims the surface). And where are all the feminist characters such as Gloria Steinem who decried Flynt? Perhaps I am being a bit too harsh but in order to see why so many people hated Flynt, we have to see what drove them to hate him. He is essentially protecting the entire magazine (as he does through the movie) from censorship and libel, and not just the political cartoons. It is his vision he wishes to protect.

Regardless of these significant oversights, "The People vs. Larry Flynt" is director Milos Forman's finest film since Amadeus. He has managed to bring a vivid, penetrating portrait of the most infamous magazine publisher of the 20th century. His film biography is witty, humanistic, honestly emotional, three-dimensional, acutely written, and marvelously acted and directed. Forget "Michael Collins." Based on the film and the renewed interest in this man, Larry Flynt is an individual who will be talked about for decades.

Copyright 1997 Jerry Saravia

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