People vs. Larry Flynt, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Larry Flynt, the self-proclaimed king of smut, as an American hero? Unlikely as it may seem, that's the scenario set up and successfully pursued by Milos Forman's (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Amadeus) latest venture, The People vs. Larry Flynt. While this movie doesn't say anything that we haven't learned in high school civics classes, it gives names and faces to the subjects, and they're not portrayed by the likes of Henry Fonda and James Stewart. Instead of "righteous" men stepped upon by the system, we're presented with a person who has been demonized not only by the religious right, but by the mainstream press. Nevertheless, when Larry Flynt won his case before the Supreme Court in 1987, we all emerged victorious. His wasn't just a fight for his own rights, but a battle for everyone who cherishes the freedoms afforded by the First Amendment.

Perhaps the most obvious flaw in The People vs. Larry Flynt is making the central figure too likable. He's played by Woody Harrelson, an actor who has been synonymous with good-naturedness since his days on Cheers. And, with the real Flynt taking a bit part (an unsympathetic judge who presides over the first trial), and his lawyer, Alan Isaacman, acting as consultant, it's reasonable to wonder how much the publishing magnate's image has been smoothed over to make him more palatable to an unbiased viewing audience. It's no great stretch to assume that Flynt wasn't the civil rights advocate he comes across as being, since, by his own admission, he was "just trying to make an honest buck."

The First Amendment has always offered fertile ground for exploration by movies, books, and debates. No virgin territory is investigated here, but the film relentlessly hammers home the reasons why our constitutional freedoms are so important. To paraphrase Isaacman (played by Edward Norton), we don't have to like what Larry Flynt does to appreciate that we live in a country where he's free to do it. That's the crux of what The People vs. Larry Flynt is trying to say, and it's a theme that is effectively conveyed.

Of course, if that's all Larry Flynt was -- a textbook examination of First Amendment rights -- this would be a rather dry experience. But Forman, from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, tells a much richer and more complex story. With varying degrees of success, The People vs. Larry Flynt presents a character study of its main subject, a look at how he raised an empire from a small group of strip bars, and the sometimes-tender, sometimes-turbulent love story between Flynt and his wife, Althea (Courtney Love). And, since this movie is about the publisher of a skin magazine, there's plenty of bare flesh to go around (although, it should be noted, the movie's "R" rating prevents the raunchy displays of explicitness that can be found in Hustler magazine).

The most moving aspect of the film is undoubtedly the relationship between Larry and Althea, and the scenes of these two together contain elements of eroticism and genuine romance. Part of this is due to the fine, uninhibited performance of Courtney Love; part is because Woody Harrelson seems most comfortable in these sequences. Several scenes in the second half of the movie, with an impotent Larry confined to a wheelchair and Althea strung out on drugs, are heartbreaking to watch.

The People vs. Larry Flynt picks up Flynt's story in 1972 (after a brief, telling prologue twenty years earlier), when he's trying to drum up business for his "Hustler" go-go clubs. His solution: start a "newsletter" with lots of pictures of naked women. Soon, Hustler is a nationwide publication, but poor sales resulting from candid depictions of female genitalia threaten to financially ruin its publisher. Then Flynt manages an amazing coup. The Hustler issue featuring pictures of a naked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sells in excess of 2,000,000 copies and puts the magazine in the big leagues. Suddenly, Flynt becomes the target of obscenity and pandering law suits, with big guns like Charles Keating (James Cromwell) and Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul) lined up against him.

Through the whole struggle, Flynt is supported by three people: his lawyer, Isaacman; his brother, Jimmy (Brett Harrelson); and, of course, Althea. When Flynt first meets the love of his life, she's a bisexual stripper working in one of his joints. She challenges him: "They say you've slept with every girl in every one of your clubs." The next day, they're living together, and, after a time, they're married. Their marriage, like Flynt's life, goes through a series of rocky times, but Althea sticks by her husband's side no matter what, even when Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover) briefly converts him into a born-again Christian.

Why is The People vs. Larry Flynt entertaining? Probably because the lead character is so much bigger than life, and perhaps because, by making him into a sympathetic man, we're spared the darkest portions of his personality. There's no doubt that Flynt is a compelling figure, but his crusade for personal freedom is only part of the reason. Sex undoubtedly sells, and Forman doesn't skimp on it here. Ultimately, it doesn't matter much how true-to-life everything on screen is. What's important is that The People vs. Larry Flynt tells a good, intelligent story that keeps us interested and involved. Since that's what happens, the verdict is clear: see the movie. You don't have to like the man to support his struggles and enjoy this dramatization of them.

People vs. Larry Flynt, The (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 1996-12-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1