Sleaze has a comic vitality all its own, and in the early scenes of The People vs. Larry Flynt we’re invited to revel in the nasty hilarity of what a scuzzy, trash-minded philistine Larry Flynt is. It’s the early ’70s, and Larry (Woody Harrelson), a strip-club proprietor with hungry eyes, a raffish hillbilly grin, and an array of terrifically ugly disco suits, is an avaricious low dog who loves his job, in no small part because it allows him to sleep with all the girls who work for him. When Althea (Courtney Love), a 17-year-old stripper, arrives in his office, she’s smart enough to know just what he wants; the lewd gleam in her eye tells you they’re two of a kind. A little later, as Flynt creates Hustler magazine, spinning it out of the ”newsletter” he uses to publicize his clubs, he envisions it as a raunchy downscale alternative to Playboy, and the movie agrees with him — it tweaks Playboy, with its bourgeois trimmings, for being the more dishonest of the two magazines. The People vs. Larry Flynt, which tells the wild, circuslike tale of Flynt’s legal war over his right to publish Hustler, is canny about recognizing Larry Flynt for exactly what he is: a smut peddler who brought the spread-eagle crudeness of hardcore pornography into the mainstream. More than one critic has already quoted Flynt’s line (spoken late in the film): ”If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you. Because I’m the worst.”
Legally, of course, he’s right. But if the movie thought Larry Flynt were simply a scumbag, it wouldn’t pack the subversive charge it does. In the course of defending freedom of speech, Flynt didn’t just go to trial; he served time in prison and, in 1978, was shot and paralyzed (by an assailant who was never apprehended). Despite these travails, he kept coming back, over and over again. And what this richly funny and exuberant docudrama recognizes is that Flynt had the moxie to do that precisely because he was such a fearlessly unrestrained vulgarian. More than just a matter of profit, his legal battles emerged from something in his character — an insurrectionary zeal inseparable from the shamelessness that inspired him to create Hustler in the first place. Halfway through the movie, there’s a spectacular sequence in which Flynt stands on a stage with images of pornography and war atrocities flashing behind him. The scene revivifies an old argument (which, he’s asking, is more obscene?), but it also testifies to Flynt’s awesome garishness. Directed by Milos Forman and produced by Oliver Stone, The People vs. Larry Flynt is an exultant comedy of American repression and revolt. It invites us to root for Larry Flynt by asking us to recognize that in a country as free as America, there’s something vital — indeed, essential — about a man who’s willing to go too far.
The script, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who created an equally ironic hero in Ed Wood, portrays Flynt’s escalating court battles on two levels at once. As the forces of ”morality” crack down on him in a never-ending onslaught of protesters, prosecutors, and crusading watchdogs like Cincinnati financier Charles Keating (!) and Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (who sues for libel after being viciously caricatured in a Hustler ad parody), Flynt is caught up in a courtroom drama of rich, fascinating detail. But it is also a battle that reflects the divided soul of America itself — the showdown between Puritanism and sexuality that has never gone away. When Flynt is shot, the violent crime fits poetically into the movie’s scheme: It’s the forces of repression punishing the sinner from the waist down. Harrelson’s brilliant, audacious performance takes off after Flynt has been paralyzed. Medicated, enraged, his voice a nerve-damaged mumble (he sounds like Jimmy Stewart with cotton mouth), Flynt suddenly has nothing to lose, and so he sits there in court wearing a Stars and Stripes diaper and a series of hilariously rude T-shirts, pelting the judge with oranges, refusing to behave. He becomes the whacked-out Lenny Bruce of porn, a freedom fighter literally going nuts for his cause.
Some of Flynt’s life is so bizarre that the film’s jocular tone doesn’t allow us to fully grasp what was going on. It’s never clear why Jimmy Carter’s evangelist sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, attaches herself to Flynt, or why he becomes a born-again Christian. And the filmmakers squander an opportunity by failing to reenact the outcry over Hustler’s infamous torso-in-a-meat-grinder cover. If the film had shown us that some feminists, then as now, have called for the banning of pornography (explicitly in league with right-wing censorship advocates), that acknowledgment would only have fueled the timeliness of its First Amendment argument. That said, The People vs. Larry Flynt is a great, liberating movie. Outrageously entertaining, deeply respectful of history, it catches us by surprise in its moving portrayal of the love between Larry and Althea (who, after getting AIDS, died in 1987), played by Courtney Love in a performance that glides from kinky abandon to druggy haplessness to stark tragedy. What Love brings to the screen isn’t only talent. It’s something our movies are in desperate need of now, something all the Bullocks and Pfeiffers and Robertses can’t fake — a raw power of the soul. She makes us feel how much Larry Flynt lost, even as he won the fight of his life.