[Deep Focus]

The People vs. Larry Flynt does for sex magazine publishers more or less what Ed Wood did for bad filmmakers.

That is to say, it's a whitewash. But what a charming whitewash, and for what a good cause. The People vs. Larry Flynt is an epic American saga, the tale of a young entrepreneur (er, strip club owner) who starts his own publishing venture (er, Hustler magazine) to forge a place in American discourse for his own home-spum philosophy (his principal contribution to the visual grammar of pornography seems to have been the "beaver shot"). The theatrical trailer promotes this one as a drama, and the newest TV spots present it as a comedy, and they're both right. Much of Larry Flynt has a cheerily surreal bent to it, which actually enhances the impact of the stuff that's played straight. It's far from the last word on free speech and dirty magazines, but Larry Flynt scores points for engaging the issues in the first place.

After an odd, mannered prologue showing young Larry's beginnings as a Kentucky hillbilly, the movie concentrates on his rise from Ohio strip-club owner to Los Angeles publishing magnate. He begins publishing the Hustler newsletter to promote his clubs, and stakes all his savings on turning the modest handout into a nationally distributed magazine. The first issue tanks disgracefully, but just when all seems lost, Flynt comes into possession of nude snapshots of Jackie Onassis sunning herself on a Mediterranean vacation. Sales go through the roof, and Hustler becomes an American institution.

The movie has conflict -- Flynt's efforts run afoul of local authorities, and he will eventually wind up in the Supreme Court, appealing a lower court's judgment against him for publishing a satirical ad suggesting that Jerry Falwell had sex with his mother. The movie has romance -- Flynt falls in love with the grungy-gorgeous Althea Leasure, a new face in his club who turns out to be a more savvy publisher than Flynt himself. And it has tragedy -- overzealous prosecuting attorneys drag Flynt through the judicial mud, a fundamentalist sniper puts him in a wheelchair for the rest of his days, and his lovely Althea turns out to be a diseased junkie, unable to kick the same painkillers that eased Flynt's unbearable paralysis.

Terrific performances, sharp direction, and broad comedy -- The People Vs. Larry Flynt has everything except a sense of why Flynt has been so reviled, and what drove him on in the face of revulsion. As played by Woody Harrelson, Flynt is no traditional hero, but he's not really an object of scorn, either. When he explains that a Hustler front-cover image of a woman's naked body being fed through a meat grinder -- probably the most effective image ever co-opted by the anti-porn movement -- is meant as a symbol of his born-again sensitivities (he was briefly converted after having dinner with then-President Jimmy Carter's sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton), it's hard to tell whether the movie is taking him at his word or if it's just unwilling to call its protagonist on the carpet for using misogyny to sell magazines.

It's easy to take a perverse delight in watching Flynt wheel around the bedroom of his Bel-Air mansion, watching on security cameras as federal marshals swarm the building after he releases a videotape of the FBI's cocaine sting operation against John DeLorean. And no matter how lowbrow Flynt's sense of comedy, it's hard to fault him for dragging the beatific Falwell portrayed here (by Richard Paul) through the mud. Even when Flynt hurls invective and vegetables at a judge from his wheelchair, he's not much more offensive than your crazy Grandpa (his speech impediment makes him talk like Jimmy Stewart). Only in one scene, where Flynt delivers a sermon of sorts in front of a giant screen montage alternating naked girls with wartime atrocities, does the film really suggest that he may be as looney as the opposing forces.

Courtney Love is marvelous. In the film's early scenes, she plays a worldy stripper who nicely balances Flynt's lack of grace. Later, when she portrays the shambling wreck that echoes some pointed media coverage of her own life, she doesn't embarrass herself. Oliver Stone has described her casting as "the great battle of this picture," but how much riskier is it to cast Love as Flynt's wife than to cast, say, Madonna as Eva Peron? Her haunting, girlish performance doesn't quite deliver on the same level as her songwriting (Hole's 1994 Live Through This was an astonishing album), but it's a remarkable debut, and she'll likely earn the respect of even those who can't stand her music.

Edward Norton is nearly as good in the pivotal role of Alan Isaacman, Flynt's longtime attorney (in the movie, the character is actually a conglomeration of different real-life lawyers including Isaacman) who explains to the Supreme Court -- and thus to the movie's audience -- why even lowbrow speech deserves full Constitutional protection. Bright and savvy to a fault, Norton almost helps us forget that he's preaching to us in a scene that could easily have fallen flat on its face. But after Norton articulates the argument in response to probing questions from the justices, the court's unanimous decision in favor of Flynt really feels like a triumph.

Cameos by political strategist James Carville, TV journalist Donna Hanover (who happens to be Mrs. Rudy Giuliani), a Memphis judge, an NYU law professor, and Flynt himself (as a Cincinatti judge) add character to this free speech circus, which is part historical drama and part broad satire. I guess I prefer my satire a little more narrow, since I would rather have seen a lot less of the Jerry Falwell impersonator. And a reference to infamous financial shyster Charles Keating would have seemed a slyer commentary on "decent" citizenry had the point not been hammered home with an insert of the guy's name tag in close-up. Too often, Larry Flynt nudges your shoulder, making sure you "get it."

But for the most part, Milos Forman proves himself once again to be a skillful director who guides winning performances and makes the most of his well-chosen material without overpowering it -- certainly this production breaks ranks with his previous films. More than Amadeus or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Larry Flynt is of a piece with Ed Wood, the previous film from screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Both films romanticize their protagonists, but Ed Wood clicked as Tim Burton's valentine to a down-on-his-luck ancestor. Larry Flynt has no such sense of closure. Instead, the film offers congratulations to the First Amendment. Poets and pornographers alike, Forman wants to say, we're all in this together.

On the one hand, the film goes to great lengths to distance itself from Flynt's accomplishments. "I don't like what Larry Flynt does," Isaacman tells a courtroom at one point in the film. "I never bought Hustler, and I doubt I ever will," Forman says in the press kit. But on the other, the movie never shows us what was so distasteful about the magazine. Shots from your typical Hustler pictorial would likely earn this movie an NC-17, but when Harrelson's Flynt breaks taboos, it's in a playful way. In one scene, he urges a model to spread her legs a little wider. Althea playfully suggests sexualizing The Wizard of Oz. Flynt publishes a cartoon featuring Santa Claus sporting a gigantic erection. And so it goes. Still, there must have been more to Hustler than that.

Flynt's whole career seems to be predicated on his feeling that the working class deserves pornography without pretension -- "Playboy," he anounces to a roomful of compatriots, "is mocking you." But the film never expands on those feelings in any meaningful way, and the early scenes speed by without showing us enough of that feisty, subversive spirit. "All I wanted to do was make some money and have some fun," Flynt has said, and the movie seems willing to leave it at that. And maybe that's the point -- whether Flynt was a hero, a pioneer, or simply a coarse nut job, whether there were any principles at all behind his endeavors, he's one of the people who's helped make this country great.

Directed by Milos Forman
Written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Produced by Oliver Stone, Janet Yang, and Michael Hausman
Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot
Starring Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, and Edward Norton
USA, 1996

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