The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 9 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 1996 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Milos Forman Actors: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, Brett Harrelson, Donna Hanover, James Cromwell, Crispin Glover, Vincent Schiavelli, James Carville




n Kentucky in 1952, brothers Larry and Jimmy Flynt try to make an honest buck selling moonshine to the locals. 20 years later, now living in Cincinnati, Ohio, Larry (Woody Harrelson) and Jimmy (Brett Harrelson) run a failing strip club; they’ve always been entrepreneurial, yet they haven’t caught a big break. But Larry comes up with a brilliant idea: what if they could sell their exotic dancers to a wider audience through a printed newsletter? Playboy exists, but the articles tend to target a wealthier crowd; and it has a reputation for somewhat modest, gentlemanly photography. Flynt’s new Hustler “sex paper” won’t shy away from graphic nudity, and isn’t afraid to market to a lower class of consumer.

“You can’t show the genitalia!” Although there are a few hiccups on the road to success (such as an initial, near-bankruptcy-producing 25% sell-through rate), it’s not long before the Flynts are millionaires (with Larry showing off his 24-room mansion to his elderly parents). And along for the ride is his non-monogamous lover Althea (Courtney Love). But when copies of Hustler begin turning up in plain view at neighborhood grocery stores, the forces of censorship descend upon the Flynt’s enterprise. “Decent people are being corrupted!”

The film blends comedy with education, chronicling real people and real court cases (notably beginning in 1977), which highlight not only opinions of the era, but also problematic encroachments on civil liberties and the corruptions present in small-town politics (keenly embodied by James Cromwell and James Carville). There’s a comic tone to most of it, though it’s difficult to dismiss the severity of prison sentences endured by Flynt, who repeatedly clashes with the law in an effort to uphold the weighty freedoms of the press – and, by extension, citizens who wish to preserve the freedom to decide for themselves what is obscene and what is not. “All I’m guilty of is bad taste!”

The entertainment value waxes and wanes, however, as this biography largely sticks to Flynt’s actual endeavors. Of particular fascination is his momentary embracing of religion, which runs parallel enough to his empire’s exploitative components that it nearly derails everything. And then there’s an assassination attempt against Larry and his Harvard Law School graduate attorney Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton), which not only alters the course of Flynt’s spirituality, but also confines him to a wheelchair and leads to painkiller addiction. As with many biographical accounts of influential, history-making people, the truth is oftentimes more wild and unpredictable than fiction. “I turned the whole world into a tabloid!”

Also anticipated, yet more piercing, is the tragic nature of Flynt’s success and publicity, which seems to warp his behavior into that of an anarchical madman. In his attempts to call attention to his unfair persecution and his anger at the loss of his legs, he steadily engages in more and more self-destructive and financially ruinous actions. “It’s my business and I’ll run it into the ground if I want to!” For such a taboo-shattering, controversial mogul, true happiness seems perpetually elusive. Of course, Flynt’s legacy is nevertheless potent, culminating in a significant and sharply-staged Supreme Court showdown, followed by a somewhat poetic and thought-provoking parting shot and afterword, once again demonstrating Flynt’s impact on society over the sheer entertainment value of his life.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10