Social maverick and self-indulgent individuals are ten a penny. Egoism and the many philosophies that hound their isolated, centred thought process are relayed with simplicity and effectiveness by their personal enlightenment. Move on, help yourself, and live life to the fullest, consequences be damned. Such a thought process was adapted by the late Larry Flynt, his rise to controversial success as publisher of Hustler magazine and subsequent assassination attempt is not a life as well-documented as it would seem. Saying that, though, the great Miloš Forman took a pop at Flynt’s life and high points of controversy in The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Detailing the rise of Hustler and his fight for freedom of speech and press, Flynt (Woody Harrelson) is the subject of decimating controversy. A strong ballast in the form of Harrelson keeps the film on target for much of its running time, but such strain means he is unable to move into the comfortable position of engaging brilliance. He is solid, but not beyond the pale of brilliance. It is rather underwhelming at times to think that Harrelson cannot quite conform to the exceptional work he usually provides, and given the sheer absence of memorable writing, that may be a performance that struggles because of outside influence, rather than inner turmoil.
Surprising it may be to suggest or consider, but Forman is not on top form. He would collect himself and push through once more with Man on the Moon, but here, it is clear at times that his surge of interest in the biopic format has barely blossomed. The similarities between The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon are rather broad, but it is the detail, crew and variety of the latter that makes it stronger than the former. Cramming in high-grade performers in the form of Edward Norton, Courtney Love and James Cromwell, the results of this exceptional mix are mundane and a little weak. Watered down, even, and not even a supporting role from Crispin Glover can aid the film along. Forman struggles to bring out the compelling moments, his direction shunning the unique brilliance of his early work in favour of the Hollywood formula.
Tabloid journalism and its rise and rise away from shlock and sex to the exact same but embellished to look like investigative strokes of genius is, perhaps, due to the seismic impact Flynt had on the world of publishing. Not just that, but his political stance and forthright abdication of grounded sense turned him into a man that was able to shock the culture he looked to decimate. He looked for the kneejerk reaction, he tapped the dying pulse of society and shot venom and rage into it. For better or worse, he gave life to the darker, ghoulish side of the general public. The People vs. Larry Flynt accepts the womanising eccentricities and power-trip, but cannot get to grips with the real impact of his work.