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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 Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

Winning wars requires personal qualities that are usually frowned up in civilian life - ability to take other man's life without remorse, disregard for personal safety, automaton-like following of orders etc. In order words, many military heroes aren't the types you would like in polite company. What goes for war sometimes goes for other forms of social conflict, including the struggle for civil liberties. Some of the toughest battles have been won by people who were far from what people usually associate with decent human beings. One of such examples is the protagonist of THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, protagonist of 1996 biopic directed by Milos Forman.

The plot of the film deals with roughly two rather extraordinary decades in life of Larry Flynt (played by Woody Harrelson), one of the most controversial public figures in contemporary America. It all starts in early 1970s Cincinnati where Larry Flynt sees that fewer and fewer people are frequenting his strip joints. In order to promote this business he starts "Hustler", a magazine that does very badly until its first publishing coup - nude photographs of Jackie Onasis. Flynt and "Hustler" become household names, magazine circulation is skyrocketing, but the publisher soon creates powerful enemies - conservative politicians who like to score points by going after "indecency". For them, Flynt with his outrageous personal behaviour and magazine that sells raw, unrefined pornography beyond the most liberal standards of conventional decency, represents a perfect target. Because of this, Flynt's trusted attorney Alan Isaacman (played by Edward Norton) is forced to spend years in courtrooms, defending Flynt from the series of criminal and civil charges. But the most important battle would happen many years later, after Flynt's brief flirting with fundamentalist Christianity, assassination attempt that left him paralysed, drug habit and death of his beloved wife Althea Leasure (played by Courtney Love). Parody in his magazine leads to conflict with influential preacher Jerry Falwell (played by Richard Paul), and this conflict would have its final stage at US Supreme Court, with the verdict that redefined interpretation of free speech in America.

Czech immigrant Milos Forman was probably the best possible choice for director of this film. Having his family murdered by Nazis and growing up under Communism, he learned to appreciate some freedoms Americans tend to take for granted. When those freedoms are threatened, challenged or simply not there, someone like Forman is going to notice it. In his his 1975 classic ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST he used setting of mental institution to show how even the most "liberal" societies can oppress the individual. In this film he goes even further, showing that even the most cherished of all American freedoms - freedom of speech - can be achieved only at the cost many Americans still consider too great - by tolerating free speech in its most virulent, most abhorrent and most offensive forms. Forman obviously took great interest in this story and as a result, a lot of effort, passion and talents are invested in this film. The casting is also great and, interestingly enough, three actors playing major roles have something in common with the characters they play. Woody Harrelson, just Larry Flynt, leads anti-establishment crusade in real life, trying to repeal the ban on marijuana. Courtney Love, who plays former stripper and celebrity wife, used to be one in real life. Edward Norton, who plays Flynt's lawyer, studied law before becoming an actor. Real life and film also mix in the form of various real life politicians and public personalities in cameo roles, including Flynt himself playing an unsympathetic judge.

Scriptwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski do a very good job in compressing two decades of Flynt's turbulent life in more or less coherent narrative whole. The tone of the film almost effortlessly goes from comedy in 1970s to drama in 1980s, marking not only the shift in Flynt's personal fortunes but also the cultural and political shifts in American society (Reagan's neo-Conservativism, emergence of Christian fundamentalists as political force, AIDS). However, screenplay is not flawless - Flynt's numerous stays behind bars aren't resolved on screen and some of the scenes seem like they were introduced only to provide some spectacular material for movie trailers (US Marshalls invading Flynt's luxurious mansion is one of those). Like in all Hollywood biopics in recent times, some of the historical facts are used selectively. For example, the script conforms to Hollywood stereotypes and portrays Christian fundamentalists and hypocritical right-wing politicians as the only villains in this story; in reality, 1980s anti-pornographic crusade against Flynt and people like him was aided by radical feminists and other elements from the American left. Some of the references in the film are probably going to mean very little to contemporary audience - few of them would remember Charles Keating (played by James Cromwell) and savings & loans scandal associated with him.

Yet, despite those flaws, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT is not only very entertaining, but also a very important film. Unlike many Hollywood products in last decade, it reminds viewers of few important truths - democracy can't exist without tolerance; censorship is the poison of freedom; tolerance must include even the most abhorrent people or it can't exist at all. Made in the age when Hollywood itself began to look less tolerant, more open to "friendly persuasions" from Washinton politicians and with "questionable" content (sex, nudity, violence, bad language) being gradually expelled from mainstream movies, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT has already earned its place in history books.

Copyright 2003 Dragan Antulov

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