The People vs. Larry Flynt

on December 27, 1996 by Joseph McBride
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   Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt is one of the unlikeliest heroes imaginable for a mainstream Hollywood movie, but the biggest surprise about "The People vs. Larry Flynt" is how mild and inoffensive this Ixtlan/Phoenix production manages to be. One might expect that, with a protagonist who gleefully labels himself a "scumbag" and spends his life behaving as outrageously as possible, his biopic would be equally provocative and disturbing. Instead, the filmmakers use Flynt's strange career for an overly earnest preachment about the First Amendment.
   The movie's heart might be in the right place, but the movie itself seems inappropriately timid, pussyfooting around Flynt's demented world. Moviegoers get little sense of what it was that made Hustler so offensive, and Woody Harrelson's engaging performance as Flynt makes his battles with the Establishment seem more endearing than threatening. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski ("Ed Wood") enjoy the irony of portraying Flynt as an ostracized champion of American freedoms, but the film never rises to its declared level of ambition.
   "The People vs. Larry Flynt" focuses on legal battles over obscenity and other free-speech issues, with Flynt gradually finding a sense of purpose in court for his otherwise rampantly hedonistic life. His antagonists include such well-known figures of smarmy hypocrisy as Charles Keating Jr. ("Star Trek: First Contact's" James Cromwell) and the Rev. Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul), as well as a legal system that Czech emigre director Milos Forman (Oscar winner for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus") portrays as mostly farcical. Forman's satirical bent sometimes enlivens the proceedings, but not enough to overcome the feeling that this is an HBO movie escaped to the big screen.
   Flynt's relationship with his drug-addicted, AIDS-infected wife Althea Leasure, played by rock singer Courtney Love ("Feeling Minnesota"), is treated as the stuff of romantic tragedy. But, despite her harrowing portrayal of Leasure's final years, Love starts out looking so wasted that there's little room for modulation in her performance. Starring Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, Brett Harrelson and James Cromwell. Directed by Milos Forman. Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Produced by Oliver Stone, Janet Yang and Michael Hausman. A Columbia release. Drama. Rated R for strong sexual material, nudity, language and drug use. Running time: 126 min. Opens 12/27 limited; expands 1/10
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