As young boys, Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) and his brother Jimmy (Brett Harrelson) made their money in Ohio by brewing moonshine and selling it around the countryside, although their drunken father would do his best to help himself to as much of their product as he could. Twenty years later in the early seventies, they both owned strip clubs, but business was not good, not good at all. The problem wasn't the women, it was that they were lacking publicity and Larry was sure that the men would come flocking if they published a magazine advertising the ladies on display. The printer argued that he needed text as well as photographs of nude women to avoid the obscenity laws, like Playboy did. And so Hustler was born, and a publishing empire...
Oddly, director Milos Forman's film of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's script isn't too concerned with the sexual side of Larry Flynt's publications, or indeed lifestyle. The writers had previously given Tim Burton his cult biopic of "World's Worst Director" Edward D. Wood Jr, but here was a story of a far more successful man, who nevertheless had to face his own failures and obstacles as Wood had done. The morality of Flynt's peddling of sleaze is not in question here, what the film is more interested in is his right to present such material to the public.
The American public, that is, as Flynt was little known outside of his own country, yet Forman and his team have introduced a universality to the subject: how far can we go before we clamp down on citizens saying - or printing, for that matter - whatever they like, no matter how offensive it is to us? As Flynt says in the film, his main crime is simple bad taste, and he does not come across as a malicious type here unless crossed, and even then it's all part of his dubious sense of humour and wounded pride. That said, he does have puzzling quality, an obviously intelligent man who sabotaged himself at various junctures, usually when in conflict with authority.
The film is actually a very decent courtroom drama, as Hustler's contents first put him before the law on obscenity charges in his home base of Cincinatti thanks to representatives of the moral majority. In a nice touch, the real life Flynt plays the judge who sends Harrelson's Flynt down for twenty-five years, a sentence which is overturned on appeal. But that won't be the last time Flynt is in jail. Edward Norton plays his lawyer, Alan L. Isaacman, who admits he doesn't like his client's business but will defend his right to pursue it, and Norton is rewarded with a scene stealing, "this is what free speech is all about" finale in front of the Supreme Court.
Yet it's about more than that, as Flynt is only human and was deeply in love with his wife Althea, essayed in a state of all too realistic gradual breakdown by Courtney Love. She didn't mind his bedding of the models, she even joined in herself, and in her Flynt found his soulmate making for a surprisingly touching romance as an emotional centre. As the incidents pile up, one of the most significant arrives halfway through as Flynt survives an assassination attempt that leaves him dead from the waist down and possibly unabalances him more than his religious epiphany. But it's those courtroom scenes you'll remember: Harrelson's electrifying performance brings vital humour to the situation as Flynt wears "Fuck This Court" T-shirts and makes a mockery of trials brought by the likes of the F.B.I. and the Reverend Jerry Falwell. You're with him all the way here, and The People vs. Larry Flynt succeeds as well as it does because it's willing to take a potentially dry subject and make a highly unlikely hero of its central character. Music by Thomas Newman.