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There's also something a little sleazy -- hypocritical -- about showing us glimpses of death camps but keeping us away from full-scale Hustler smut. Sony, the distributor of Larry Flynt, apparently doesn't share Flynt's quaint notion that sex sells -- they don't risk an NC-17 rating. If we saw some of Flynt's more fetid handiwork, we might be less inclined to cheer him.
As Flynt's chief lawyer, Edward Norton stands in for us when he tells the porn king: "I don't particularly like what you do," adding, of course, "You represent something bigger." (A bigger paycheck for sure; $40 million in lawsuits makes one hell of a meal ticket.) Later on we hear Flynt intone, "I would like to be remembered for something meaningful." Like this movie? (The real Flynt, looking as gelatinous as Jabba the Hut, has a cameo as a judge presiding over an early obscenity trial.) When Larry Flynt is in its low-down high-minded mode, it's like a Stanley Kramer socially conscious drama for pseudohipsters. The film is much better -- much more original -- when it embraces the looniness at the heart of this all-American saga.
There's crackpot porno poetry, for example, in Flynt and Althea's courtship rites. She proposes to him in a postorgy hot tub, and they both have to reassure the other that marriage doesn't mean monogamy. It's a funhouse-mirror romance: Love means never turning away multiple partners. Courtney Love brings out Althea's sly, slurry sensuality, the way she seems ready at any time to mount just about anything -- animal, vegetable, or mineral. Later on, when she's in her drug haze and her hair resembles a rainbow mop, she vamps about Flynt's L.A. mansion like a sleepless Scheherazade.
Flynt's scenes with evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton are another screw-loose high point. As played by Donna Hanover (the wife of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani!), Stapleton comes across as an ardent cipher. She tells Flynt: "We're both trying to release people from sexual repression," and you almost believe her. She's hypnotically vacuous. The filmmakers don't really take a position on whether they think Stapleton is a phony, but the joke is even funnier for that -- Flynt the con artist is conned by a higher power. For a time he's born again, sort of: His mix of religion and porn in the pages of Hustler runs to stuff such as photo spreads of Adam and Eve.
Larry Flynt feels like tarted-up Sixties vaudeville. That's both good and bad. Its Sixties-style mix of sex and drugs and politics is livelier than what we're used to now, but like many of that era's gonzo extravaganzas, it runs out of steam. Irreverence carries you only so far. And so Larry Flynt, after a rollicking first hour, bogs down in Althea's extended druggie aria (Love's performance also bogs down). Flynt's repeated obscenity trials become a big bog too -- it's like watching one of Lenny Bruce's later routines, when he tried to roust us with legalisms. Harrelson is fun in the beginning, in the strip joints, with his sky-blue suits and primped hair -- he has a great lewd smile he never loses. But he doesn't have the stamina or the watchability to keep us hooked on Flynt through his many incarnations. He's a quick-change artist who keeps changing into the same suit.
If the best parts of the movie have a Terry Southern-ish flavor, that could be because Flynt is a character who might have sprung full-blown -- so to speak -- from Southern's fervid noggin in his peak Blue Movie period. And yet Southern seems like a classic right now. Obscenity has its time line; we've moved past the prurience in Larry Flynt. Compared to what's out there in, say, the cybersexual arena, Flynt's indiscretions pale. Time has fossilized him into a chic icon for slumming civil libertarians. The best sick joke in the movie is that we can now look back on his smut with nostalgia.
The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Written by Scott Alexander and Tim Karaszewski; directed by Milos Forman; with Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, Donna Hanover, James Cromwell, and Richard Paul.
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