Late in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," Flynt himself (played flamboyantly by Woody Harrelson) says, "If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you — because I'm the worst!"
That's what the movie would like to be about, the celebrated First Amendment case involving Flynt's pornographic Hustler magazine. And had that been the central driving force of "The People vs. Larry Flynt," it might have been infinitely more interesting than the movie that was made.
Witness a sequence toward the end of the picture, when Flynt's lawyer (Edward Norton, in a nicely understated performance) addresses the U.S. Supreme Court — a compelling, well-written, very well-executed scene (taken directly from court documents).
But it's also one small moment in a picture that spends an awful lot of time wallowing in the excessive lifestyle of this self-described smut peddler. And while the free-speech case itself was about a satirical cartoon (tastelessly lampooning Jerry Falwell) that was published in Hustler, the majority of Flynt's magazine — and his life as portrayed here — doesn't leave much to cheer.
The film chronicles Flynt's life, beginning with his childhood in the backwoods of Kentucky through his rise in the so-called "sex industry," first as the owner of a dingy strip joint in Ohio and eventually by expanding a publicity newsletter into Hustler magazine, designed from the get-go to be a raunchier, more-explicit version of Playboy.
Along the way he meets Althea Leasure (rock star Courtney Love, electrifyingly raw), a stripper at one of his clubs who proves to be his match, and subsequently becomes the love of his life . . . their group-sex proclivities notwithstanding.
While in the midst of his freedom-of-the-press court battles, Flynt is shot by a would-be assassin and becomes paralyzed from the waste down and has some nerve damage that impairs his speech. But the incident only serves to make him more outrageous, as he wears an American flag diaper to a courtroom appearance, spits at a judge and throws fruit at the bench.
Eventually, Althea dies of an AIDS-related disease, and heartbroken Flynt continues his battle with Falwell, right up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the stars deliver sterling performances, there are a lot of secondary characters — some played by recognizable actors — who are terribly underdeveloped. Probably the most glaring example shows up in a subplot about evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton (President Jimmy Carter's sister, played here by Donna Hanover, wife of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani), who took a surprising interest in Flynt as he briefly flirted with religion.
The film also makes no attempt to balance Flynt's views with the opposition. In fact, everyone who takes him on is portrayed as a narrow-minded boob (especially Falwell), prudish at best, and at worst, obnoxious and overbearing.
When the Falwell-satire case went to the Supreme Court, Flynt rightly won, of course. And perhaps our First Amendment rights are the better for it. But to portray Flynt as a high-minded truth-seeker who had the country's best interests at heart is ridiculous.
And because the film concentrates so much on the love story between Flynt and Althea — which comes off as a sort of Americanized "Sid & Nancy" — their excesses dominate the film.
"The People vs. Larry Flynt" aspires to be a satire, taking great pleasure in the irony that a trashmonger like Flynt had his rights upheld by the Supreme Court and thereby ensured that the rest of us would be OK.
But despite director Milos Forman ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus") protesting that his intention was not to make Flynt a hero, that is the impression the film leaves. Forman is unflinching in his portrayal of Flynt as a sleazeball; he doesn't try to sugarcoat the character. But he also clearly sees Flynt as a champion of the First Amendment who should be celebrated. And on that point, he's gone overboard.
If, as Flynt protests, he's really only guilty of bad taste, perhaps Forman is, as well.
"The People vs. Larry Flynt" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drugs.