20 Years On: “The People vs. Larry Flynt”

Some film’s just have to be seen to be believed. They may sound crazy and silly, but are they? That depends on who’s watching. What may be a strange film for one may in fact be an amazing piece of cinema for another. Sometimes too, time can play an interesting role in whatever experience is had.

The Columbia Pictures film “The People vs. Larry Flynt”, is a strange film that may meander and seem outlandish, but always comes back to the core themes.

This biographical drama stars Woody Harrelson (upcoming films “Wilson”, “War for the Planet of the Apes”), Courtney Love (“Revenge”, “Empire”), Edward Norton (“Collateral Beauty”, “Sausage Party”), James Cromwell (upcoming projects “The Young Pope”, “The Promise”), Crispin Glover (upcoming “By the Rivers of Babylon”, “Aimy in a Cage”), James Carville (“G.I. Joe: Retaliation”, “The Muppets”), Brett Harrelson (“Inferno”, “From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money”), Donna Hanover (“Odd Mom Out” , “Keep in Touch”), and Norm MacDonald (“The Middle”, “The Ridiculous 6”).

The film was directed by Milos Forman (“Goya’s Ghosts”, “Man on the Moon”) and written by Scott Alexander (“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”, “Big Eyes”), and Larry Karaszewski (“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”, “Big Eyes”).

The film originally opened on Dec. 25, 1996 in a limited capacity and eventually opened wide on Jan. 10, 1997. It would go on to be nominated for two Academy Awards, five Golden Globe Awards, winning two, and one Screen Actors Guild Award among numerous nominations and wins.

After trying for so many months, I’ve now successfully managed to watch this film. I’ve always wanted to see it. I couldn’t very well pass up a film on a controversial person and his print publication. However, now that I’ve seen it, I’ve seen that, more or less, I wasn’t missing anything. I could’ve gone my whole life without seeing it. That being said, I’m okay with having spent a few hours with it. At least I got the chance to see why it is I like most of the actors in this film.

First off, they each gave great performances. Certainly different than most of the work they’ve done lately, which itself has been challenging and just as fascinating. Another reason I like them as much as I do. But because of the script and focus of the overall story, there was a chance to really explore these characters. An attempt at humanizing Flynt and his wife, Althea, played by Harrelson and Love, respectively, certainly made a difference. If it weren’t for this, I’d think the whole thing was one big circus, made up of as many outlandish falsehoods as possible. That being said, this view into their lives isn’t without its problems. While it’s a bit eye opening, and let’s you like them enough, it’s not terribly deep. There’s not much that allows for you to find them memorable, beyond the fact that they were part of the big “Hustler” empire and everything that’s documented in history. This may as well have been a fictionalized version of Flynt’s life, with different personal histories for each character. It must be said too, that this might possibly be the best thing Love’s done in ages, at least from an acting standpoint.

But fortunately, while a constant in the film, Flynt’s and Althea’s lives weren’t the focus. It was the magazine, the empire, and all the trouble that came from him just wanting to print as much smut as possible. To be the sleaziest person as possible. To be, as the film puts it, even from Harrelson’s character, a “pervert”. Yes, many people saw (and probably still do) him as a pervert, but to see a film agree with this label and have the central character call himself such a name, is somehow fascinating. Perhaps the real Flynt did believe like this. That he took it as some kind of noble label. Anyway. The film was all about one thing. Free speech. Through this, the film becomes an issues film, which isn’t terrible as there are still far too many instances of free speech violations and attempted censorship today, and even 10 years ago, that I’m surprised by its relevance. Sure you can be against the work Flynt was doing, like Norton’s character was and said as much, but at the heart of it all, the work wasn’t the issue. The ability to put out that work, unimpeded, was. This will always be something I can get behind. A plus of this film, isn’t just that it was a major focal point, if not the primary one, is how the writers took to exploring it. Through many dramatic moments, mainly prison stints, and well made arguments, in and out of court, this film provided enough for any viewer to think on. While it seems silly that people might need a viewpoint to help them discover what is right, as they already know what is, it doesn’t hurt to get a new take. At the least, you’ll be able to think about what you already believe, and see it slightly differently, all the while reaffirming your stance..

And let’s not forget the truly fun aspects of this film. No, not the nudity. That was just gratuitous. Let’s leave it at that. The courtroom drama was just as dramatic as anything else, and just as fun as some of the other crazy antics. Why? It’s court and law. Legal proceedings have always fascinated me. I blame John Grisham for that. In this film, like with other legal films, although a bit less, there was no shortage of fascinating content. While I only do like two of the courtroom fights, they seem to be the most powerful. The first one seems to give a glimpse into how the system operated at the time, especially as it sought to deal with issues that were not in line with what was morally right or considered the standard of a community. Thus, we witness Norton’s character surprised that all his motions at just flat out denied. He can’t get anything truly heard. And that’s how he’s sentenced to 25 years for what amounts to bad taste. Then, there’s the appeal to the Supreme Court, which essentially closes out the film. It’s inspiring. It’s powerful. It’s the exact type of argument I was speaking about earlier. I am not one in need of convincing or even inspiration, but that’s what I got and I feel better off because of it. Because of the fascinating level of each courtroom scene, maybe not the ones with antics that confused me, I actually wished there had been more. In some way I’m sure the writers could’ve kept things going longer and made sure they were relevant and dramatic all the way through.

Eventually this film became something of a mess. A calculated mess, but like with Norton’s character, when he says, “I don’t even know what we’re engaged in anymore”, I too lost all focus. Not on the story outright, but what Flynt’s purpose was. By and large, as discussed, it was on first amendment grounds, but at the same time, his antics became so crazy, that I could no longer see. Why was he behaving in the way that he was? Was it just to be as loud and obnoxious as possible? Was he in that much of a need for attention? It seems bad to ask that, but when it doesn’t seem like it’s natural or just part of some quirky character trait, it’s hard to take it seriously. He’s not eccentric because he’s a character, he’s eccentric, although not truly, because he just wants to rile people up. Was this who the real Flynt was? Was this what it really was like when interacting with him? In so many ways, I hope not. He was his a hindrance to his own cause. With regards to the overall film, yeah, I grew tired of it. I couldn’t take it any longer. However long I lasted is really a miracle. If it weren’t for the human aspects of his character, and every one else, plus the courtroom drama, I don’t think I would’ve focused as much as I did. This film took a risk, and while it had some bumps, it worked out overall.

I like silly and outrageous films. They don’t always have to be the smartest, although that helps, but being able to escape a lot of seriousness is why we go to the movies. When you can potentially learn things about a person, time, or several events, there’s even more of a reward. This film may be far from perfect, but it takes an eccentric character and tries to get to the heart of who he is and why he fought as much as he did, and the way that he did. Flynt may not be the best choice for a poster child, for any cause, but at least you know you have someone who truly cares about something, and will suffer any consequence to be heard.

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