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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 Mark Fleming
3½ stars out of 4

Milos Forman's powerful biopic of the notorious porn-Baron succeeds on various levels. Larry Flynt is presented as a triumph of America's free market, an uneducated man who rose from moonshine-peddling hillbilly to command a multi-million pound business empire. Falling foul of obscenity laws, he also becomes public enemy number one. The courtroom debate between outraged far-right prosecutors and his lawyer's First Amendment defence are the story's potent driving force. Forman also digs deep to present his subject as a man of curious contradictions. Capable of tenderness with his wife, Althea, he is also a ticking time-bomb who can explode with indignation at the insensitivity of reactionaries.

Woody Harrelson brilliantly portrays Flynt. Never a caricatured sleaze-merchant, he is a complicated individual, who, during the transition from Kentucky shack to Beverley Hills palace, runs a Cincinnati strip club, marries a stripper, is sentenced to 25 years in jail, is shot and paralysed by an assassin, befriends the President's sister and finds God, finds heroin, assaults a judge with an orange, and finally takes on the might of the Supreme Court. Harrelson uncovers the humanity within a fairly loathsome degrader of women, giving strength to the film's anti-censorship sentiments. Edward Norton plays Alan Isaacman, a young lawyer, with lashings of drive and the patience required to represent a grown man who often behaves like a spoilt child. His eloquent court testimonies and calm assurances are a perfect counterbalance to what he regards as Flynt's 'undiagnosed manic depression.' Flynt's nemeses are Charles Keating (James Cromwell) and the evangelist Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul). Neither of these characters are explored very deeply; their views, however, are as rigidly black and white as Alabama schools were not so long ago. Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover) is excellent as a white, liberal, middle-class woman who takes the errant Flynt under her wings. Courtney Love, as Flynt's wife Althea Leasure, also gives a good performance, although occasionally she seems determined to play the part as a rock chick should: latterly, being continually smacked-out and falling about in court public galleries, with increasingly lurid Gothic hairstyles, detracts from the main spectacle.

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's script bursts with energy. There would surely be enough incidents in Flynt's life for a series of biopics, but key events are satisfactorily condensed here without trivialising. Flynt's initial business idea is simple. To get round obscenity regulations, magazines displaying naked women must also contain stories. The text in Playboy is high-brow nonsense. Hustler will give it straight, featuring models in knickerless as well as topless glory. Initially, the staff don't even understand basic page layouts. But this anarchic free spirit carries the tale. The narrative's main thrust is an impassioned plea against censorship, and while Flynt may lapse into drug-induced lethargy and increasingly eccentric behaviour, the power of its telling ensures we never lose sight of this. This move deals with the lesser of 2 evils. People disgusted with Flynt's magazines don't have to buy them. His right-wing Christian prosecutors spread their bigotries over cable TV.

Each stage of Flynt's rise from Kentucky backwoods to corporate office-block and Hollywood mansion is told with a meticulous eye. The fact that sudden affluence rarely equates with happiness is rammed home: a marble bath merely proves to be a plusher place to OD.

Larry Flynt has organised a rally to promote free speech. He makes an impassioned plea about a society that finds pornography repulsive, while having no similar qualms about warmongering. Behind him, on a cinema-sized screen, images of nudity flash, interspersed with Belsen's obscene corpse mounds. His point is driven home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer (Oliver Stone is a co-Producer, after all), but it is still a very effective sequence.

For all Flynt's opulence, he is unable to get really close to the one he loves. Despite marrying Althea he still wants an open relationship. He is unused to limitless wealth and pays no heed to the dangerous levels of Althea's drug addiction, contributing to her untimely death.

This movie delves into the life behind a porn Baron and reveals much more than a sleazy individual. The real issue on the dock here is whether ultra-conservative religious bigots should control any individual's freedom to buy items from a newsstand.

The penultimate court sequences possess a glorious anarchy. You know it is only a matter of time before the judge slams his gavel down and charges him with contempt: amongst other things he curses, wears the American flag as diapers, barks at predatory tabloid hacks, sports a 'F*** This Court' t-shirt, and ambushes a judge with fruit.

Copyright 2001 Mark Fleming

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