In its excesses and extravagances, its fascination with sex, religion, celebrity, bad taste and making a whole lot of money, there is no more American story than that of combative pornographer and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt. So it's poetic and appropriate that an immigrant director, Czech-born Milos Forman, has had the clarity to turn it into a provocative and engrossing motion picture.
Working from a shrewd and pointedly funny script by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, the team responsible for "Ed Wood," Forman's contributions have enlarged "Larry Flynt" in ways other filmmakers might not have managed.
The most obvious is having an eye for casting and a zest for mixing professionals with real people, an openness to using folks such as political consultant James Carville and Flynt himself (playing a hard-nosed judge) in cameos. And having the nerve to choose rock star Courtney Love to play opposite Woody Harrelson and being rewarded with a live-wire piece of work, both kinetic and kittenish, that stands as one of the most original performances of the year.
Forman, witness films from "Loves of a Blonde" through "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Valmont," also has a willingness to tolerate ambiguity. Despite his name in the title, "The People vs. . . . " is not interested in glorifying Larry Flynt, quite the opposite. It rather delights in showing how this crass and cold-eyed hustler, a man of wildly contradictory and often offensive urges and impulses, ended up, to his own great surprise as much as anyone's, doing something significant for society.
What Flynt finally did was take a legal dispute with the Rev. Jerry Falwell about a noxious Hustler ad parody (showing the reverend losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse) all the way to the Supreme Court. The top court's unanimous 1988 ruling, for the first time granting 1st Amendment protection to parody, is considered a free speech landmark.
In this area, too, "The People vs. Larry Flynt" benefits from having a filmmaker who lost his parents to the Nazis and grew to adulthood under Communist censorship. While it's hard to imagine native-born directors getting worked up about 1st Amendment rights they take for granted, Forman's life experiences turn those freedoms into issues he can be passionate and persuasive about.
All this is yet to come when "The People vs. Larry Flynt" opens in 1952 in a decrepit shack in the woods of East Kentucky, where 10-year-old moonshiner Larry (helped by his 8-year-old brother Jimmy) is so intent on making a buck that he doesn't hesitate to physically attack his alcoholic father for "drinking my profits."
Twenty years later Larry (Woody Harrelson) and Jimmy (real-life brother Brett Harrelson) are still chasing the main chance, this time by running go-go dancers through a series of unimpressive Hustler Clubs in Ohio.
The men's magazine starts as a simple newsletter for the clubs, but Flynt, who enjoys getting worked up, soon turns messianic in his determination to topple Hugh Hefner by printing the most graphic shots of genitalia he can get away with. His own most satisfied customer, Flynt harangues his dubious confederates, many of whom have trouble telling even-numbered pages from odd, by holding up the rival publication and screaming, "Who is this magazine for anyway? Seven million people buy it, but nobody reads it. Playboy is mocking you."
About this time Larry meets too-young dancer Althea Leasure, a brazen erotic sprite whom Courtney Love, alternately vampish and vulnerable, invests with a natural blowzy sensuality. Bisexual, easily bored, invariably jealous, Love's Althea and Woody Harrelson's shrewd, promiscuous Flynt are no Hallmark card, but the actors connect beautifully and make the couple's love for each other vivid and undeniable.
Almost immediately, Flynt's off-putting magazine gets him in trouble with the authorities, introducing him to Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton), a committed civil liberties lawyer (and composite of several Flynt attorneys) who starts to educate his client (and the audience) about the overarching importance of constitutional rights.
A different kind of trouble is provided by evangelist and presidential sister Ruth Carter Stapleton (played by TV anchor Donna Hanover). With her flirtatious encouragement, Flynt's life takes another unexpected turn as he becomes the unlikeliest of born-again Christians. This is much to the despair of Althea, who rightly points out that "nobody on this planet wants religion and porn together."
Everything changes yet again in 1978, when Flynt is shot leaving a Georgia courthouse, an attack that leaves him paralyzed below the waist and increasingly addicted to painkilling drugs, which become a problem for his wife as well.
Flynt and Althea relocate to Los Angeles ("we ought to move somewhere perverts are welcome" is his wry rationale), where outrageous courtroom antics like showing up in an American flag diaper and tossing oranges at a judge demonstrate Flynt's ability to turn everything into a circus and a travesty.
Though Woody Harrelson's intensity and charisma make Flynt magnetic, he is more terrifying and self-destructive than someone we admire, which is the film's point. His chaotic story mirrors "The People vs. Larry Flynt" in being without conventional boundaries, a saga that could only happen in a country where, as Flynt himself puts it, "everybody gets their shot, even a pig." His may have been the classic unexamined life, but "The People vs. Larry Flynt" does us all a favor by scrutinizing it to memorable effect.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual material, nudity, language and drug use. Times guidelines: frank and raw but not exploitative for exploitation's sake.
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'The People vs. Larry Flynt'
Woody Harrelson: Larry Flynt
Courtney Love: Althea Leasure
Edward Norton: Alan Isaacman
Brett Harrelson: Jimmy Flynt
Donna Hanover: Ruth Carter Stapleton
An Ixtlan production, in association with Phoenix Pictures, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Milos Forman. Producers Oliver Stone, Janet Yang and Michael Hausman. Screenplay Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. Editor Christopher Tellefsen. Costumes Theodor Pistek, Arianne Phillips. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Patrizia Von Brandenstein. Art directors James Nezda, Shawn Hausman. Set decorators Maria A. Nay, Amy Welles. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.