Combustible Celluloid
Search for Posters
Stream it:
Own it:
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, James Cromwell, Crispin Glover, Brett Harrelson, James Carville, Donna Hanover, Richard Paul
Written by: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Directed by: Milos Forman
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual material, nudity, language and drug use
Running Time: 129
Date: 10/13/1996

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

3 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Oliver Stone, who produced The People vs. Larry Flynt, is good at packaging depravity in acceptable forms. Natural Born Killers was nothing but a 60's psychedelic drug movie. (See it and Roger Corman's The Trip back to back and you'll know what I mean.) The Doors was a rock and roll drug movie and JFK was a giant trash propaganda film (like Reefer Madness). The People vs. Larry Flynt is about porn, and it shows us porn, but it's packaged as a movie event, and that makes it okay to see.

I'm not complaining about this phenomenon. I like it. We live in a country where depravity is (more or less) legal, but people get upset over the packaging. That's just what The People vs. Larry Flynt is about. It's about a man who did what was allowed under the First Amendment, and was picked on by people who didn't like how he did it. (The publishers of Playboy never went to court.) The secret is that people do like porn, but they can't admit it. Everyone wants to see porn. Even the bad guys in the movie have collections of Hustler magazine "for reference." The movie is about weak people trying to use the law to cover for their own personal weaknesses.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is not subtle. Even though Oliver Stone did not direct (it was directed instead by Milos Forman, a two time Oscar winner for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus who is not very good with subtlety either) it reeks of his presence. Unless you are one of those repressed people, it's really hard not to identify with Flynt (played over the top but great by Woody Harrelson). He's a scumbag, but you love him because he stands up to the movie's stuffed shirts (who are all pretty one-dimensional). He loves his wife and his parents and he acts on what he believes in, no matter what the consequences. The filmmakers are counting on critics to call Flynt an "unlikable" character and pat themselves on the back for identifying with him, but, on the contrary, he's very likable. That on top of the fact that the bad guys are not given real personalities to oppose him. (We've got Charles Keating and Jerry Falwell as villains, and they're paper thin.) In Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking for example, both sides are given equal weight and the finished film is so much more powerful than anything Stone has ever or will ever accomplish.

The movie is a lot of fun for long stretches. There are scenes of dancing girls and moonshine running and photos of naked women (most of the nudity in the movie is in still photos). It's written by the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who made the wonderful Ed Wood biopic. The drugs in Ed Wood were handled with finesse, but in Larry Flynt, they're pretty exaggerated. Unless you're a big fan of needles, the section of the film where Larry gets shot, then deals with pain pills, then his wife Althea's addiction, then her contraction of AIDS, is long and hard to watch. I personally have a problem with sequences like this because I've seen it all before and we're expected to react to the subject matter itself and not the presentation of it. In Trainspotting, drug abuse became fascinating and even poetic because of the unusual and interesting presentation of it.

On a side note, the movie boasts the unusual casting of Courtney Love as Althea Flynt. Love is the passionate and intelligent lead singer-songwriter for the great band Hole. She has been labeled as "the asshole wife of martyr Kurt Cobain" and even as a Yoko Ono figure. But the music of Hole is nearly as good and honest as Nirvana's was, and Love proves in her performance that she is incapable of fakery in any medium. She is truly dazzling in her part; wild, pathetic, romantic, beautiful and funny (and naked). She makes Whitney Houston (The Preacher's Wife) and Madonna (Evita) look sad in comparison.

Edward Norton (who is also in this year's Everyone Says I Love You and Primal Fear) plays Flynt's attorney. He gives great patriotic speeches that hit home. He sounds like he is making up the speeches as he goes along, and there's no swell of music behind them. He's jittery, geeky and smart. It's also a great performance.

The People vs. Larry Flynt isn't a porno movie, but it makes you feel good about porn and America for two hours. It's sloppy and unpleasant at times, but also a lot of fun.

DVD Details: The People vs. Larry Flynt Special Edition (1996, Columbia/TriStar, $24.95), the funny, outlandish biopic of "Hustler" guru Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) is even more relevant today than it was seven years ago, with our frighteningly conservative government slowly snuffing out our personal expression. This new disc comes packed with extras and commentary tracks.

Movies Unlimtied