Oct. 21, 2010

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Grade: 73/100

Director: Milos Forman
Stars: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton

What it's about. A biopic on Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson), who rose to wealth and fame during the 1970s after publication of Hustler Magazine, a tasteless and edgy variant of Playboy. Flynt has to overcome local politicians and their kangaroo courts who wish to shut down his publication. Flynt and his super-smart nice guy lawyer, Edward Norton, take his First Amendment battles to the Federal courts, where they usually win.

Flynt partners and eventually marries Althea (Courtney Love), a free spirit devoted to Flynt and his "cause", whatever exactly that is. Larry's less bright but more level-headed brother is played by Brett Harrelson, Woody's real-life brother. Lesser board-level Hustler employees include such interesting supporting actors as Crispin Glover and Vincent Schiavelli.

How others will see it. The People vs. Larry Flynt was not a big box office success, but has undoubtedly long since become profitable from video rentals and television revenue. The film was lauded by critics, initially enticed by Milos Forman's involvement, and convinced by the crisp direction and entertaining script. The three greatest beneficiaries were Courtney Love, Edward Norton, and Woody Harrelson. Harrelson garnered an elusive Best Actor Oscar nomination, further proof that an excellent way to get such a nod is to portray a handicapped man with a speech impediment.

The imdb.com user ratings are generally high, especially for men and younger audiences. Presumably, older and female demographics are less likely to overcome their disapproval of Larry Flynt, and perhaps suspect that all that "free love" with his female employees was provided with less enthusiasm than suggested here.

How I felt about it. In a way, this is a fraudulent movie. The real Larry Flynt is not really a handsome and lovable rascal, as portrayed here. Flynt's empire was about more than pornography. For example, one of the serial cartoons in Hustler Magazine was "Chester the Molester," who was armed with a baseball bat during his adventures. The idea that Flynt is basically a good guy who simply enjoys the natural beauty and sexuality of women is a simplification, if not a whitewash, of what his publication represents.

But movie biographies are less about accuracy, and more about overcoming unfair adversity. That is the usual formula because it works. It is like Hitchcock's "wrong man" theme. It works over and over again, and nobody minds since a good movie is always welcome, even if it seems more than vaguely familiar.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is less familiar than most such biographies, because it features an anti-hero instead of a hero. This twist makes it more entertaining, because it allows the entry of such lurid material as free love, drug addiction, and pornography.

But at its core, the movie is not really a celebration of Flynt or his values. It is instead an indictment of the hypocrisy of the establishment, represented by savings & loan swindler Charles Keating (James Cromwell) and the late Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul), whose ministry was a tax-free business ideal for solicitation of funds. Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover) comes off comparatively well, because she is not a blatant hypocrite. She might be wrong, but certainly no more so than Flynt himself.