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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

Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt is a rags-to-riches success story with a twist: The recipient of the American Dream is a pornographer who admits to losing his virginity at age 11 to a chicken and is known for saying things such as, "A woman's vagina has as much personality as her face."

But Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt also won an important Supreme Court victory in 1988 that expanded 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. Director 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 that found in 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 its more mainstream competitors, and the average income of its readers hovered around $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 in one of his trials -- while also grabbing his crotch. It's the American way.

The People vs. Larry Flynt plays up the highflying Americanness of Flynt's weird saga. Running moonshine as a boy in Kentucky, he graduated to running go-go joints in Cincinnati and then parlayed a sleazoid newsletter into Hustler, which hit the big time when Flynt published nude shots of Jackie Onassis. Over the years he spent $40 million defending himself against everybody from Charles Keating to Jerry Falwell, whom Flynt riled by running 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, a 17-year-old bisexual stripper in one of his Cincinnati clubs who went on to marry him and help manage his empire. In 1978, when Flynt was shot by a fanatic outside a Georgia courthouse -- rendering him wheelchair-bound for life -- it was Althea's idea to place a photo spread of his wounds in Hustler. Althea and Larry both entered a painkiller twilight zone, but while he kicked his habit, she stayed hooked, contracted HIV and ultimately overdosed in her bath.

Consider Flynt's self-made pasha's privileges, his martyrdom at the hands of a would-be assassin, 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? As Flynt, Woody Harrelson comes across 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's doing is giving us a variation on the old DeMille biblical epic approach -- tickle us with depravity and then denounce it. Only here we're tickled with a raunchiness that's then canonized. 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 have used 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. Forman's making a movie about someone who lacks the ability to censor himself, but he doesn't let his own id pop 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 to have never taken a close look at Hustler. At the end, when choral strains rise during the closing credits, no irony is intended.

Nor is any irony intended in a sequence 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 we see a video montage of atrocities from Nazi concentration camps, Vietnam and Klan lynchings, the film gets into black-comic areas that it's too callow to handle. 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 presenting. But there's still something sleazy about the way Flynt co-opts these horrifying images in order to justify his good old 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 his stunt.

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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