The People vs. Larry Flynt is remembered less as an actual film and more for the hysterical controversies it caused (the film sank in Variety’s hypothetical “stix” like many an Oscar contender). That’s not so much a reflection on how heated the editorial battle lines were drawn between Jerry Falwell, Gloria Steinham, the filmmakers and the real-life Flynt, but rather a somewhat damning suggestion toward the lukewarm film itself. Flynt was lucky to be blessed with just about the coolest cast of the moment. Harrelson stepped into the role of the sleazemonger Flynt with a sense of matinee impishness, Edward Norton pulled another hat trick after Primal Fear, and Courtney Love’s balls-out interpretation of Althea was enough to net a New York Film Critics Circle award. Unfortunately, the film they do their best to bring to life ends up as conventional as the Capra films it’s obviously modeled after. Ed Wood‘s screenwriters, known now for their quirky biopics (they would later pen Man on the Moon and Auto Focus), have a distinct knack for hammering real, messy human lives into an ultra-rigid dramatic arc. Here, the film end with the landmark Falwell v. Flynt Supreme Court decision in Flynt’s (and the First Amendment’s) favor. They do it so well to Larry Flynt that it’s hard to notice the ignored points of debate or contention whizzing by unexplored. In an effort to be fair to both sides, Flynt is depicted as something of an “aw, shucks”-ter while Falwell, ostensibly the film’s foe, is barely presented at all—he’s just a benign sack of eye-rolling incorruptibility. While it’s understandable that one’s natural impulse when walking through a minefield is to step lightly, Alexander and Karaszewski (unmistakably the auteurs behind the film, as Milos Forman’s brand of smooth naturalism just about approaches nonchalance) unfortunately left the door open for a firestorm of criticism from the far left. They’ve since made a point of expressing their surprise that it was the left that attacked the film, rather than the extreme right. Why, one wonders? Though Flynt is, by the writers’ admission, “a love letter to the ACLU,” it is also an absolute reading of the Bill of Rights. “[Conservatives] get that,” reason the filmmakers on the DVD commentary track. Unfortunately, what the writers don’t consider is that leftists also “get that,” but have perhaps moved on to expect something more (like the feminist critique of Flynt’s white-trash brand of pornography) from them. Whitewashing the truth is a forgivable sin in the world of biopics, but to demean ideologies by remaining “balanced” is cowardly.
- Milos Forman
- Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
- Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, Brett Harrelson, Donna Hanover, James Cromwell, Crispin Glover, James Carville
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