Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)
More than any other movie I've seen in recent years, The People vs. Larry Flynt reveals the auteur theory to be -- at least in some cases -- a reprehensible lie. Directed by two-time Oscar winner Milos Forman, it bears a certain superficial resemblance to his previous celebrated films -- Flynt, as portrayed here, is as rascally as R.P. McMurphy and as irrepressibly immature as Amadeus' conception of Mozart -- but a more blatant likeness is evident in Tim Burton's goofy biopic Ed Wood...which, like Flynt, was penned by the team of Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. Burton, whose outlandish, nouveau-tacky sensibilities are similar to the screenwriters', was the perfect choice to helm the Edward D. Wood, Jr. story; Forman, on the other hand, with his commitment to conventional naturalism, is all wrong for this material (the original script, which has been published in book form -- thanks, Bryant, for the free copy -- includes several fanciful scenes which Forman insisted be cut, and is far less earnest in tone than the film as shot), and he reduces what could have been a cheesy masterpiece to a respectable entertainment-cum-tract. What's more, the film is a brazen whitewash of its subject, depicting Flynt (as portrayed by Woody Harrelson, who seems to be having the time of his life) as a lovable gadfly while carefully omitting his numerous wives (Althea, the only one who appears in the movie, was his fourth), his lunatic political views, and the aspects of his publications that nauseate even a pornography-friendly fellow like myself. (Yes, Ed Wood was every bit as much a distortion, but that film was so cheerfully unpretentious, and so determined to simply entertain the 87 people who bothered to see it, that the inaccuracies are easy to forgive -- not so with Flynt, which, in its own garish way, is as self-important as Gandhi.) And yet -- and here's where those of you wondering whether the star rating above was a typo can unfurrow your brows -- and yet it still works beautifully, in spite of the miscalculations and the liberties taken with the truth. Forman's leaden direction saps much of the brash energy from Alexander & Karaszewski's script, but his work with actors is extraordinary; some of the movie's best scenes were largely improvised by Harrelson and Courtney Love, both of whom richly deserve their Golden Globe nominations (just kidding, they're both terrific). Even more impressive are Edward Norton, in (yawn) yet another first-rate performance, as Flynt's idealistic young attorney; and Woody Harrelson's younger brother Brett, who, as Larry Flynt's younger brother Jimmy, is so believably amused and exhausted by Larry's shenanigans that I sometimes wished the movie were about him. The comic scenes are hilarious ("Its like if you don't make over $20,000 a year, you don't jerk off. Gentlemen, Playboy is mocking you!"), the love story is surprisingly moving, and the didactic arguments in support of the First Amendment, while facile, are still undeniably inspiring to anyone who gives a damn about freedom of expression. Apart from a short sequence devoted to Flynt's sudden and unexpected conversion to Christianity, which stops the movie cold for a spell midway through (maybe it happened, but here it's just preposterous -- nobody involved with the film seems to understand why it happened, and hence they're incapable of making it work onscreen), and an unnecessary prologue featuring Flynt as an extremely pragmatic child, every bizarre twist and turn of the story is utterly fascinating. As a polemic it's borderline embarrassing, and as biography it's laughable; but as sheer, unadulterated entertainment, The People vs. Larry Flynt delivers. It also features the most perverse shot I've ever seen, thanks to the studio's desire to avoid an NC-17 rating: confronted early in the film by a photographer who claims he can't show genitalia, Flynt delivers a stirring (and perfectly sensible, to my ears) paean to the beauty of the vagina -- at which point, the camera cuts to an insert of the model's widespread legs...with her vagina digitally blurred. Not that I desperately needed a beaver shot, but how about a little courage to accompany those convictions, folks?