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'Flynt': Amend This

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 27, 1996

I have one burning question after watching "The People vs. Larry Flynt." Was Flynt, the founder of Hustler magazine, this much fun to be with? As interpreted by Woody Harrelson, he's the cutest, cuddliest lil' pornographer to ever get caught in a lifelong maelstrom over free speech.

"All I'm guilty of," he tells the outraged powers that be, "is bad taste."

Flynt's outrageous, checkered life has become grist for Hollywood sugarcoating and liberal sermonizing in director Milos Forman's sometimes entertaining but exaggerated portrait. Harrelson's Flynt is deeply in love with his bisexual, drug-addicted wife, Althea Flynt (Courtney Love, enjoying the screen role of her very peculiar lifetime). He's unapologetic about his professional intentions -- to provide exclamation-point relief to the lonely and horny. And he's amusingly candid about everything.

He's the kind of Hollywood creation whose redemption lies in romantic faithfulness, and whose endearing, almost childlike naivete makes him a sweet, naughty boy caught up in a big American issue.

The life of the real Larry Flynt lent itself infamously to discussion of the Constitution's First Amendment. As the movie shows, the erstwhile strip-club owner (Harrelson) made a name for himself when he founded Hustler Magazine, an immodest, show-all pornography magazine that made Playboy's airbrushed pullouts look positively uptight. In perpetual conflict with the courts, which knew pornography when they saw it, he spent most of his adult life fighting the legal system.

When the Rev. Jerry Falwell -- one of the magazine's favorite satirical targets -- sued Hustler for libel, it was the beginning of a protracted war that ended with a dramatic finale before the Supreme Court.

All these and other events are depicted, but with a gleefully iconoclastic tone. As Flynt, Harrelson brings an absurdist, irreverent air to his court appearances, treating judges with contempt, wearing diapers on one occasion, and paying his fines with cash from trash bags -- delivered by hookers.

The latter section of the movie pays attention to Flynt's darker episodes. Struck by an unknown assailant's gunfire as he left a courtroom, he was permanently crippled. He also lost Althea to AIDS.

Forman has taken obvious delight in his casting. As Althea, Love is his most successful choice. With an almost dangerous, steamy presence that almost fogs up the lens, she's the main reason to watch this movie.

Flynt himself plays Judge Morrissey, the Cincinnati judge who handed him a sentence of 25 years. Former Clinton strategist James Carville plays a prosecutor hellbent on bringing Flynt to justice, while James Cromwell (Farmer Hoggett in "Babe") plays a smut-phobic Charles Keating (and guess how he ended up, is the not-so-subtle message). Crispin Glover -- sporting an eye patch -- rounds out the weirdo factor as Arlo, one of Flynt's editors.

Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who also scripted "Ed Wood" and "Mars Attacks!"), the movie revels in its idea of colorful authenticity. We're privy to the lewd, '70s-era atmosphere of Flynt's Ohio strip joints; the jocular camaraderie around Hustler's editorial table; the sleazy photo sessions (just coy enough to avoid the NC-17 rating); and life in the mondo-wackiness of the Flynts' porn chateau.

The whole affair feels like a prolonged, laugh-a-minute love-in, designed to make us line up cheerfully behind Flynt's First Amendment rights. And as we watch the ugly part of Flynt's life -- the crippling of a pornographer right where he lives, below the belt, and the demise of Althea, who becomes addicted to her husband's painkillers before her bout with AIDS -- it seems we're merely undergoing a bummer section before the almost flag-waving Supreme Court title fight.

As the movie ponderously reminds us, Flynt -- with his lurid magazine and energetically irreverent attitude toward society -- exists as the ultimate test of the First Amendment. "Why do I have to go to jail to protect your freedom," Flynt barks at a reporter. But the movie's depiction of Falwell (Richard Paul) as a puffy, sanctimonious nincompoop detracts from this championing of honesty. Wouldn't it have been more interesting -- not to mention accurate -- to give Falwell fuller dimension? We're really celebrating Hollywood's freedom to create biographies of anyone, no matter how high or low on the social ladder, and still come up with the same banal characteristics, messages and conclusions. In this sense, "The People vs. Larry Flynt" doesn't champion, so much as squander, freedom of speech.

THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (R) -- Contains profanity, nudity and blatant sexual scenes.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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