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.

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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