Wallowing in Sleaze While entertaining, 'The People Vs. Larry Flynt' oozes vulgarity. And the film never peeks below the surface to ask more probing questions.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Larry Flynt is the primordial man you hate to love, and the case for his canonization is pretty tricky, if a case at all. The best thing about "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" is that nobody bothers to make it very hard.

The movie is instead a bright purple polyester celebration of the oozing vulgarity, the corpulent greed, the sick, out-of-control ego of that infected bedsore on the butt of the body politick that is Flynt himself, founder of Hustler magazine and its wall-to-wall, full-color gyno-vision school of publishing. It's the Iliad of the small genre of Men-Behaving-Badly movies.

We first glimpse our man Flynt as a barefoot boy with cheek of leather, hustling moonshine to the population of toothless no-necks in some hilly Possum Hollow of a non-town. He's what people in Ohio refer to contemptuously as a "briar," meaning a boy of the Kentucky briar patches across the river. He's so ignorant his idea of the big city is ... Cincinnati!

Anyhow, director Milos Forman next picks up Larry -- now played by Woody Harrelson in a pitch of high stupidity and low cunning -- as the proprietor of a string of girly bars in Cincy, always a step ahead of the law and, with his wrinkleless, chemically intense leisure suit wardrobe, a step on top of his dancers.

The script never ponders key questions: Why is Larry drawn to the sexual arena in the first place, and then, why is he drawn to it as an expression of the hostility that clearly festers in his soul? Why will his vision of sexuality always be seethingly aggressive, essentially the john's view of women as object of transaction? Nobody here appears to have thought deeply enough about these issues to make the film resonate; it stays merely, doggedly entertaining throughout, following giddily as Larry becomes the Elvis of porn.

The movie makes the point that this was largely serendipitous, however; as the man says, no bad deed goes unrewarded. Flynt published his first Hustler as a club guide to his bars, but the guide took on its own life, and soon superseded the bars as a source of income. Inadvertently, he'd discovered a niche in the market.

A goodly portion of the demographic pie of American men, it seemed, were increasingly alienated from the pseudo-hipster stylings of Hugh Hefner's wannabe upscale Playboy and its baroque, Vaseline-smeared imitator Penthouse. They'd had it with the endless Playboy philosophy and the endless pictures of airbrushed and tape-supported girls next door. They wanted what rude, crude hillbilly Flynt was willing to provide in clinical color: Women reduced to the lowest, dirtiest slut status, on exhibit for the pleasure of their masters. Hey, presto: instant millionaire.

Also, instant legal squabbles. The movie is good on the hypocrisy of the good burghers of Cincinnati, who are horrified to discover the Orson Welles of genitally specific pornography prospering in their midst, giving lavish X-rated parties, bathing in gold bathtubs and generally living like a Roman emperor and civic pressures are mounted against him.

One amusing note is that one of the instigators and one of Flynt's most vociferous enemies was James Keating, who later went to prison for bank fraud on a giant scale. Australian James Cromwell, a Keating look-alike, has this role, though he doesn't do much. More energetic is former Clinton campaign mouthpiece James Carville, who is, perhaps, too energetic as a prosecutor. You can feel Carville goofing on the part, sucking up the juices of playing his ideological opposite; but it's more a stunt than a performance.

The two best roles in the film after Harrelson are played by Edward Norton as Flynt's long-suffering lawyer Alan Isaacman and Courtney Love as his long suffering wife, Althea Leasure. It's interesting to watch them, for they are excellent in exactly opposite ways. At first you hardly notice Norton; he's just a squeaky-voiced young lawyer. But we basically chart Flynt's rise and fall through him, and Norton is very good at demonstrating the subtle levels of growing contempt and frustration he (and we) have for this bloated virtual-reality pimp.

Love's turn is much bigger but equally convincing: Althea is raunchy, ambitious, clearly doomed to a path of self-destruction and very smart. If he's the Big Mac of Pornworld, she's the Lady Mac, the one who pushes him onward; she has the nude dancer's contemptuous view of the body as a vessel of manipulation for profit and basically understands on how wide a stage the act will play and how rich it will make them all. Too bad she could never stop shooting smack.

The movie, as bios must, wanders hither and yon, obligated to cover Flynt's shooting, his ventures into radical journalism, his paranoia, his born-again phase under the mesmerization of a president's loony sister, and finally his battles with Jerry Falwell.

It is upon this slender reed his claims to First Amendment heroism are based. But, as a recent New Republic article points out, he wasn't battling government censorship but another zealot who had sued him for libel and won. This was the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who isn't the man you hate to love but the man you love to hate. The issue was a clearly (if crudely) "satirical" rib over the good Rev. on the possibility of sex with mama in the outhouse. Clearly nasty, clearly mean-spirited, clearly fictitious, but libelous? Hmmm.

So Larry Flynt waged an epic battle against Jerry Falwell, a kind of a mano-a-mano duel that might be called a jerk-against-jerk duel. Thirty million dollars later, he won, making the world safe for jerks to call other jerks jerks and guaranteeing, in the process, my precious right to call both of them jerks. The movie runs it up the flagpole to see if anybody salutes, and some have, but you'll pardon me if I merely roll my eyes.

A minor irritation: Larry's brand of freedom is a lot easier to defend in theory than in practice, and though the movie is clearly willing to acknowledge many of his tacky, abusive and downright squalid tendencies, it never does show in 1997 what he showed in 1982. It can't, because that's an automatic NC-17. Still, the argument is much less prickly when the image remains unseen; it's easy to defend freedom as a principle, but a little more difficult to do when the definition of freedom is a clinical image of a woman's inner, most private topography.

'The People Vs. Larry Flynt'

Starring Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love and Edward Norton

Directed by Milos Forman

Released by Columbia

Rated R (sexual candor; nudity; profanity)

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 1/10/97

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