Saturday 27 July 2019

Movie Review: The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

A biography of the infamous pornographer, The People vs. Larry Flynt delves into a smut peddler's unlikely influence on redefining the legal limits of free speech.

From humble childhood beginnings in Kentucky selling moonshine, by the early 1970s the brash Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) is the owner of strip clubs in Cincinnati. A relentless womanizer, he nevertheless falls in love with Althea (Courtney Love). To promote his strippers he starts publishing Hustler magazine with the help of his brother Jimmy (Brett Harrelson), and orients the content to the working man, pushing the boundaries of explicit sexual imagery. Flynt also lands a coup by publishing nude photos of former first lady Jacqueline Onassis, and becomes unimaginably wealthy.

The magazine incurs the wrath of self-appointed guardians of public morality, including Charles Keating (James Cromwell). Numerous lawsuits and legal charges stemming from accusations of obscenity follow. Young lawyer Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton) offers his services and defends Larry's right to free speech and to satirically mock public figures, including televangelist Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul). Then an unidentified sniper attempts to assassinate Flynt, altering his life forever.

Notable societal milestones often originate from unlikely margins. Hustler's right to publish outlandish sarcasm landed in front of the United States Supreme Court in 1988, and in The People vs. Larry Flynt the writing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski trace an obscenity merchant's willingness to push boundaries all the way to the highest court.

Along the way, director Milos Forman crafts a baroque drama and wild romance, perhaps a pure embodiment of the American Dream. The 1960s sexual revolution and the anti-authoritarian sentiments of the early 1970s built the stage onto which Flynt strides to rewrite the rules of glossy sexual imagery for mainstream sale. That he finds a large audience and faces momentus opposition is no surprise, but Flynt uses his wealth and success to push ahead and take on his critics in various courtrooms. He wraps his empire in the flag of free expression, highlighting the hypocrisy of violent imagery depicting illegal acts being far more available and acceptable than pornography.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is also a love story, Flynt finding in Althea Leasure his perfect kindred spirit. Emotionally damaged from a difficult childhood, she loves sex as much as he does and possesses a sharp business mind to help keep pushing Hustler to new limits. Rock singer Courtney Love is exceptional in the role, starting out as a bright spark before descending to the wobbly depths of drug addiction and disease.

Along with the glitzy depiction of a rise from rags to riches, the film does spend considerable time in dark and depressing territory. Flynt takes the weirdest detour towards combining new-found Christianity with pornography, then the assassination attempt incapacitates him physically and emotionally. Addiction, depression, and mental anguish become constant companions, and Forman wades through musty territory to expose the rays of light within an unraveling mind.

The People vs. Larry Flynt depicts a real-life circus act in all its grandiose dysfunction, one man breaking barriers and paying the price in a volatile mix of pornography, love and law.

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