Libertarian or Libertine?

The People vs. Larry Flynt is a Hollywood rags-to-riches success story with a twist. The embodiment of the American Dream is a pornographer who admits to losing his virginity at age eleven to a chicken and is known for saying things such as "A woman's vagina has as much personality as her face."

But Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) also won an important Supreme Court victory in 1988 expanding the reach of the First Amendment, which is presumably why a movie has been made about him. I say presumably because I don't think the film's wiseass jocularity reflects a deep concern for our free-speech rights. The director, Milos Forman, has been quoted as saying that the hero of the piece is the Supreme Court, not Flynt, but that's not how it comes across. When at one of his many obscenity trials Flynt says, "All I'm guilty of is bad taste," we're meant to giggle in agreement.

Flynt's saga is tailor-made for hipper-than-thou libertarians. As the head of the Hustler empire, he purveyed porn a full notch raunchier than Playboy or Penthouse, and because he supposedly appealed to blue-collar readers -- his crotch shots were wider and his cartoons grungier -- he could be hailed as a porno populist. In fact, Hustler had a higher newsstand price than those magazines, with the average reader's income at $50,000 -- but hey, populism doesn't come cheap. When his obscenity trials started getting national attention, Flynt acquired a civil-libertarian cachet. He wrapped himself in the flag -- literally, using it as a diaper at one of his trials -- while also grabbing his crotch. It's the American way.

The People vs. Larry Flynt, which has a spotty, often sharp script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, plays up the high-flying Americanness of Flynt's weirdo saga. After running moonshine as a boy in Kentucky, he graduated to running go-go dance joints in Cincinnati, then parlayed a sleazoid newsletter into Hustler, which hit the big time when Flynt published paparazzi nudie shots of Jackie O. Over the years he spent $40 million defending himself against everybody from Charles Keating (James Cromwell) to Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul), whom Flynt riled in a mock Campari ad in Hustler that described how the Moral Majority leader lost his virginity in an outhouse -- to his mother. (This was the free speech that the Supreme Court ultimately upheld in 1988.)

Flynt also hooked up with Althea Leasure (Courtney Love), a seventeen-year-old bisexual stripper in one of his Cincinnati clubs who married him and helped manage his empire. When Flynt was shot by a fanatic outside a Georgia courthouse in 1978 -- rendering him wheelchair-bound for life -- it was Althea's idea to run a photo spread of Flynt's wounds in Hustler. Althea and Larry both entered a painkiller twilight zone; he kicked his habit but she stayed hooked, contracted HIV, overdosed on heroin in her bath.

Consider Flynt's self-made mogul's privileges, his martyrdom at the hands of a would-be murderer, his abiding love for Althea, his brief fling with born-again Christianity, his poster-boy status in the Free Speech wars -- I mean, could you devise a better hero's resume for the superannuated counterculture? Woody Harrelson plays Flynt like a wily hillbilly dizzy with his own lewd good fortune. At first he doesn't connect up with the "socially redeeming" side of his legal battles; he's a pornographer and proud of it. But Flynt slowly takes on the trappings of respectability: As time goes on, his raps about free speech become a shade less self-serving. The pitchman begins to believe his own pitch. Even his scuzziness acquires a righteous glow: "If they'll protect a scumbag like me," he announces after his Supreme Court victory, "then they'll protect all of you."

The film allows us to buy into Flynt's self-righteousness and still get our rocks off. In a way, what Forman and his screenwriters are doing is a new-style variation on the old DeMille biblical epic syndrome -- tickle us with depravity and then denounce it. Only here they tickle us with raunchiness and then canonize it. The People vs. Larry Flynt is an Oliver Stone production, and it has the same two-faced gusto as some of the films he's directed himself. (No, see, we're not glorifying violence in Natural Born Killers, we're condemning it). Actually, the film could use more gusto -- if Stone had directed Larry Flynt it might have been a marvel of bad-taste outrageousness. Forman is a bit too tactful, too measured. He's making a movie about someone who lacks the ability to censor himself, but Forman doesn't pop his own id out of the genie's bottle. There's a square hipsterism at work in Larry Flynt. It's a movie about the Hustler king made by people who appear never to have taken a close look at Hustler. The choral strains that lilt on the soundtrack during the closing credits are not intended ironically.

Neither is a sequence like the one in which Flynt stages a Fourth of July free-speech rally and stands Patton-like before a huge American flag. Flynt is a blowhard joker in this sequence, but when he plays a video montage of atrocities from concentration camps, Vietnam, and Klan lynchings, the film gets into black-comic areas it's too callow to handle. These images take us out of the movie. I realize a political point is being made here -- in totalitarian states it's the pornographers who get rousted first. And Forman, whose parents died in the camps, surely understands the gravity of what he's showing us. But there's still something sleazy about the way Flynt co-opts these horrifying images in order to justify his good ol' boy raunch. The filmmakers, for libertarian reasons and because they admire his kick-ass style, are so solidly on Flynt's side that they don't think to scorch him for this stunt.

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