Have you ever cracked "Hustler" and been shocked by its beefy,
reefy, down-and-dirty pictures of sex? Or maybe you weren't shocked. In
which case, you're part of what this movie is about - lots of Americans
love to spend billions of dollars for hard porn. The amazing thing about
"The People vs. Larry Flynt" is its energetic defense of hard
core without ever showing any of it. In fact, its air-brush approach to
its own subject matter makes it a wonderful work of irony - of which the
filmmakers seem unaware.
For those of you who weren't born in the 1970s, Larry Flynt was a hillbilly
high-school dropout who leveraged a string of Ohio stripper joints into
a multi-million dollar publishing business by figuring out that "Playboy"
was too artsy for the folks he knew. His crowd was not too toney, as we
Welded to this success story is a tragic love with Althea Leisure, an underage
stripper who comes into his club and into his heart like a hurricane. Courtney
Love is sensational - she's hot, carnal - she's animal amoral. To play
this role, her career as an in-your-face performer and rock widow have molded
her into a fearless actress. (Yoko Ono, eat your heart out.)
The greater story of the movie belongs, as the title suggests, to Flynt's
battle with the Law. You'll dig it, if you have any sense of humor about
the U.S. court system at all. Woody Harrelson hams up Flynt's appearances
in court, more befitting 1960s Yippies than the pornmeister. The drawn-out
court battle, the prison stints, the allegiance of a young yuppie lawyer
trying to argue that any speech has got to be free in order to protect all
speech is all played out.
But then we find out that the lawyer, Isaacman, one of the most appealing
characters in the movie and good foil for Larry, was really several different
lawyers - never the same one twice. Isaacman just won the Supreme Court
case that civil libertarians everywhere wished had been fought over a more
elevated cause than Hustler's parody of an ad purporting that Jerry Falwell's
"first time" was sex with his mother in an outhouse. (Since it's
impossible to imagine, it falls under outrageous parody and humor. Remember
that next time you want to insult your enemies.)
The writers, who have made these people more likeable than I would probably
find them, have conceived of Flynt's behavior more as a comment on the outrage
of his stupid accusers, for example, from (the very crooked) Charles Keating
that Flynt was destroying "the soul of the country."
"All I'm guilty of is bad taste," admits Flynt. To save him from
his infamous redneck style, Forman's "Amadeus" collaborator, the
estimable Patrizia von Brandenstein, has decorated the raunch out of the
film. As Flynt moves up in the world, his furniture goes through New Orleans
bordello, faux-Louis the Somethingth, and finally an elegant Art Deco.
It contributes to the overall airbrush affect of making Larry an OK guy
with just a slightly aberrant life style - instead of the man who once put
on the cover of his magazine the not-so-latently hostile picture of a woman's
body upended into a meat-grinder. And yet the movie paints this all with
a broad and very light brush - in light-hearted scenes of wisecracking editorial
Another wrong note is set in Althea's drowning in a swank tub - an "air-brushed"
affair more Ophelia than junkie/AIDS-wife taking her last dive. When Courtney's
gone, the movie's over, and they're wise enough to get out fast.
The movie makes it easy to be on Larry Flynt's side and to forget you're
one of the people who may cringe at the slices of pink scattered like sashimi
through "Hustler." But that's why we like being Americans - we
got prayer, we got porn, we got choices.
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