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Porn Again

Larry Flynt the movie does something Larry Flynt the man wouldn't: It fails to go all the way

There's also something a little sleazy, not to mention 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 raunch sells -- they don't risk an NC-17 rating. And Forman doesn't risk ambiguity; 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 the audience 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 make 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 pseudo-hipsters. The film is much better -- much more original -- when it embraces the looniness at the heart of this all-American saga.

There's a crackpot porno poetry, for example, in Flynt and Leasure's courtship rites. She proposes to him in a post-orgy hot tub, and they both have to reassure the other that marriage doesn't mean monogamy. It's a fun-house mirror romance: Love means never turning away multiple partners. As Leasure, Courtney Love brings out a sly, slurry sensuality; 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 Los Angeles 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 '60s vaudeville. That's both good and bad. Its '60s-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 only carries you so far. And so after a rollicking first hour, Larry Flynt bogs down in Leasure'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 a crowd with legalisms. In the beginning, in the strip joints with his sky-blue suits and primped hair, Harrelson is fun -- 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 might 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.
Directed by Milos Forman. With Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love.
Rated R.
130 minutes.

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