Private Parts (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Will the real Howard Stern please stand up? For, in truth, the man who haunts the airwaves of nearly three-dozen radio stations each morning seems vastly different from the kinder, milder version who graces the screen in Betty Thomas' sweet, often-hilarious biopic. Based on the bestselling book of the same name, Private Parts relates some of the details of Stern's life -- his romance with his wife, Alison (Mary McCormack), his early radio failures, his development into America's foremost "shock jock", and his vitriolic war with NBC's top brass. Along the way, we get to know Howard as a tender, intelligent, affable guy who just happens to do an "offensive... obnoxious... disgusting" radio show. So who is Howard Stern, really? Is he Private Parts' gentle soul with a loud mouth, or is he just the loud mouth? In recent interviews, Stern has asserted that the latter is correct; his wife, on the other hand, claims it's the former. Actually, it doesn't make much difference; the truth about Stern's nature doesn't alter the fact that Private Parts is an entertaining motion picture.

As astonishing as it may be for his fans to acknowledge, Howard Stern is not a universally-known personality. His syndicated radio show boasts about 10 million listeners and his program on E! Entertainment Television reaches another 40 million, but that's less than a quarter of the United States' population. And there's no overseas outlet. That will change with Private Parts. Howard Stern is about to go international, and, the more money this film makes, the bigger his name will become.

Stern's outrageously vulgar, sexually-explicit radio program has polarized nearly everyone who lives within hearing distance of his voice. The religious right wants him banned from the airwaves, the Moral Majority wants him muzzled, and the FCC continuously tries to take him down. But his legion of loyal listeners have kept him at the top of the ratings heap with a support that sometimes borders on rabid. Private Parts contains an anecdote that explains why Howard is #1 in the morning. Everyone, whether they love him or hate him, listens for hours on end for one simple reason: they "want to know what he'll say next."

Private Parts contains re-enactments of some of Stern's most memorable radio comic routines from over the years. There's a mock quiz show where he tries to get around FCC guidelines prohibiting vocalization of the "seven dirty words". There's a sequence where he has sex with a woman over the radio. An on-air argument with his program director (Paul Giamatti) turns into a physical fracas. And, in another groundbreaking moment, he does the first-ever live radio interview with a naked woman. However, while these scenes offer a flavor of what Stern's program is like, they don't really capture the true "feel", which is harsher, edgier, and more prone to offend. In fact, there are numerous times when Private Parts seems to pull its punches rather than letting them fly without concern for the consequences.

The film begins when Howard is a child and traces his life to the present. His sidekicks are accounted for -- Fred Norris, whom he met while working in Hartford during the late '70s; Robin Quivers, who started as a newswoman in Washington D.C. before becoming his friend; joke writer Jackie Martling; producer Gary Dell'Abate; and even Stuttering John Melendez, who pops up for an unforgettable cameo. Much of Private Parts details Howard's always-loving, occasionally-rocky marriage to Alison, who's played with warmth and charm by Murder One's Mary McCormack. The battles with the FCC have been relegated to a minor annoyance (this isn't a First Amendment "message movie" like The People vs. Larry Flynt), although the ongoing feud with a WNBC program director takes center stage during the film's final third.

It will probably come as no surprise to Stern fans to learn that their hero has an undeniable screen presence. Unlike many personalities-turned-actors, he never seems awkward or out-of-place. Stern's surprisingly subdued portrayal of himself may open a few eyes, however. He's never out-of-control, and the only time he plays a "sexist, racist pig" is when he's on the air. In fact, during a voiceover, he makes the comment that everything he does is misunderstood. As for Howard's most prominent real-life-turned-reel-life associates -- while Quivers and Norris are unlikely to win Oscars for their work here, they don't embarrass themselves, either.

Private Parts is aimed primarily at a mainstream audience. The humor here is racy, but also universal, and many of the jokes will cause viewers to double over with laughter (like the dig at the Academy Awards during the end credits). And, as bizarre as it may sound, Stern is the kind of guy you can't help pulling for. The question hanging over Private Parts' financial success is whether enough non-Stern fans will venture to see what they may view as a "cult" or "niche" film. Most who take a chance, regardless of what prejudices they harbor against WXRK's top personality, will find themselves rewarded by a surprisingly pleasant two hours.

Private Parts (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 1997-03-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1