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The People vs. Larry Flynt: Special Edition

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, and Edward Norton

Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
Directed by Milos Forman

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

"I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

— Voltaire

At a time when unpopular free speech is yet again under attack, this time in the name of patriotism (daring to criticize or make light of the president is now apparently tantamount to giving aid and comfort to the enemy), revisiting the landmark Supreme Court ruling on Hustler v. Falwell couldn't be more timely or important. The 1988 decision, in which the highly politicized body unanimously agreed to protect one's right to parody a public figure — and prevent the sneaky end-run that said parody has caused extreme emotional distress — sent a clear message that unpopular expressions of opinion are not subject to frivolous litigation, no matter how lowly a sleazebag the parodist in question may be.

In this case, the "satirist" was Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine and general left-wing agitator. Tiring of the Reverend Jerry Falwell's ceaseless moral crusade to banish his magazine from newsstands, Flynt approved a spoof of the then-current Campari ad campaign in which celebrities discussed, in innuendo-laden essays, their "first time" drinking the bitter aperitif. Being that this was the same Hustler that infamously ran a cover featuring a naked woman being fed into a meat grinder, the parody was fairly rough — depicting Falwell's "first time" being in an outhouse with his mother. Falwell sued, and won, on the emotional distress claim, forcing the appeal to the high court where Flynt eventually would prevail.

As a man who's made his career not simply courting, but taking unspeakable liberties, with bad taste, Larry Flynt is an obvious poster child for the ongoing battle against any attempted subversion of the First Amendment. But as a sympathetic figure in his life's story, he's a very unlikely hero. A manic depressive with a history of erratic, sometimes violent behavior (he was arrested for attacking his mother-in-law, and he has a daughter, Tonya Flynt-Vega, who claims he sexually abused her), Flynt is an unsavory man in an unsavory business. He is attracted to scandal like Weegee to a crime scene, paying huge sums of money to unearth salacious details on the lives of sanctimonious congressmen while splashing pictorials fetishizing any variety of the sexual act, including rape, across the pages of his magazine. There are many facets to the quixotic character of Larry Flynt — few of them redeeming — and there are several angles one could work in trying to tell his tale. But it would take a fine, fantastical gloss to make Flynt remotely likable.

Hooray for Hollywood!

Free-speech tract, Dionysian tragedy, or Horatio Alger fable pelvis-deep in the seedy world of pornography, The People vs. Larry Flynt is none of these things brilliantly, but all of them to very entertaining, episodic effect. Scripted by biopic specialists Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Man on the Moon), and directed by that devoted chronicler of irrepressible eccentricity, Milos Forman, the film is an altered, massively cleaned-up panorama of Larry Flynt's tumultuous life that, as is typical of the genre, plays fast and loose with its chronology of events as it builds toward the smut peddler's ultimate deliverance at the hands of the highest court in the land. Though not exactly hagiography, Alexander and Karaszewski do at times run the risk of engaging in hero worship. Yet when the film is focused on Flynt's railroading by the judicial system, it's righteous fun that seems to smartly acknowledge its earnest, Capra-corn roots. Only on further examination does it all seem to feel a bit like a biographical snow job masquerading as a liberal dialectic.

*          *          *

The People vs. Larry Flynt begins amusingly with Flynt's rural Kentucky upbringing, where the enterprising adolescent made a meager profit as a bootlegger — a foreshadowing of his looming success as a caterer to men's appetite for vice. Twenty years later, we find Flynt (embodied with randy charisma by a never-better Woody Harrelson) operating a dingy Cincinnati strip joint with his brother Jimmy (played by Woody's brother Brett). Ever on the hunt for a way to supplement his income, Flynt gets the idea for a newsletter featuring photographs of his club's "talent," which balloons into the full-blown publication of Hustler magazine, a proposed men's monthly that, as the populist pornographer would have it, delivers to its blue-collar readership all the skin of Playboy and Penthouse (and so much more) without putting on respectable airs. As Flynt puts it, "Playboy is mocking you!" Of course, the magazine becomes a raging success that keeps pushing the soiled envelope, eventually running Flynt afoul of the local authorities and landing him in jail on charges of indecency.

At this point, Flynt could've easily become (as its title suggests) a First Amendment screed, concentrating on the thorny relationship between Flynt and his Harvard-educated lawyer, Alan Isaacman (his current counsel, but a composite of three men here, played with fidgety intelligence by Edward Norton). However, the filmmakers divide their sympathies, delving into Flynt's tempestuous relationship with his wife Althea (Courtney Love). A bisexual stripper who wins Flynt's heart by informing him that he's not the only one with complete carnal knowledge of his club's dancers, Althea was the perfect discretion-free companion for Flynt until she contracted AIDS and drowned in their bathtub in 1987. (It remains unclear whether this was a suicide or an accident; taking into account Althea's infirm condition at the time, either conclusion is possible.) Essaying a role that mirrors her real-life travails rather uncomfortably, Love is pretty sensational as Althea. The knock on her work here has always been that she's simply playing herself, which is bunk. An unapologetic exhibitionist who would probably wither and die outside of the paparazzi's glare, Love is a natural in front of the camera. It's possible that it was necessary for someone as unlikable as Love offscreen to portray someone as distasteful as Althea onscreen, but what's surprising is how she makes the character so pathetically lovely. She gives the film its heart, without which it would coldly limp toward Flynt's Supreme Court vindication.

As for Larry Flynt, he remains a puzzling figure, if only because Alexander and Karaszewski's equation of the man simply doesn't coalesce. The writers' superficial, greatest-hits approach fails most tellingly when Larry becomes a born-again Christian, an unexpected conversion facilitated by Ruth Carter Stapleton, the sister of then-President Jimmy Carter. It's a fascinating chapter in Flynt's life (particularly since Althea harbored an extreme hatred for organized religion due to her claims of being molested by nuns as a child) into which the writers manage nary an insight. Since Forman comes most alive during the Constitutional or whimsical aspects of the story, he mostly seems to rush through this inexplicable section in order to get to the fall from grace — which, of course, is pretty spectacular. Descending into manic behavior after a would-be assassin's bullet leaves him paralyzed from the waist down (the gunman was never apprehended), Larry becomes a gale-force whirlwind of self-destruction, undermining his various court cases by racking up contempt-of-court charges and alienating everyone around him. The film's version of the story has a dying, drug-addled Althea, aided by Isaacman, bringing Larry back from the brink, enabling him to reclaim control of his publishing empire and successfully combat his pious (and deep-pocketed) enemies. Finally, Flynt has his day in the highest court of the land (albeit without Althea, who died the previous year). It's a galvanizing courtroom scene that smashingly dramatizes the court transcript to make a cogent and passionate plea for the upholding of our most precious civil right. Though Forman never quite succeeds at adding up all of the film's many disparate parts into a fully satisfying whole, he slams home its most important message with a deeply affecting zeal. It's an unfocused, sporadically entertaining journey, but weirdly rewarding in spite of its glaring flaws.

*          *          *

Columbia TriStar presents The People vs. Larry Flynt in a fine anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. This is a tremendous upgrade of the film's earlier bare-bones DVD release, and as a "Special Edition" the disc does not disappoint.

First, there are two brand new commentary tracks, one from the writers, and the other from cast members Harrelson, Love, and Norton. Both are candid and very entertaining, with juicy anecdotes sprinkled throughout (though one wishes Milos Forman, an eloquent, witty, and endlessly fascinating raconteur, would've added his voice to the chorus). The writers' track is particularly illuminating, detailing the surprising ease with which they got the film greenlit by Columbia, while also exposing their often conflicting intents in telling the story.

There are also two brand-new featurettes: "Free Speech or Porn?" (30:09), which is a look back at the film's behind-the-scenes troubles and its unexpected broadside from liberal pundits, and "Larry Flynt Exposed" (29:25), a much more factual account of the pornographer's sordid life that still manages to overlook the most disturbing elements.

Also on board are also two deleted scenes (both with optional commentary). The first is a sequence involving Flynt's half-joking, half-serious campaign for the presidency. This was once a much larger part of the film that eventually was eliminated by Forman to maintain focus. The second scene is an extension of the sequence in which Larry shows his parents around his mansion, taking them down into the basement where he's had a complete replica of their old shack of a house built exactly to scale. It's a funny scene, but hardly revelatory. The extras are rounded out by a reprint of a New York Times capsule review by Frank Rich, two brief deleted scenes (with filmmakers' commentary), cast and crew filmographies and a couple of theatrical trailers (one for this film, and a teaser for Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle). The keep-case is bound by a semi-transparent plastic slipcover.

— Clarence Beaks

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