By Stacy Richter

PORNOGRAPHER LARRY FLYNT may seem like an unlikely hero for a movie, but if a Fascist dictator and his wife can light up the screen in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, why not make the publisher of Hustler magazine an affable symbol of Everyman? Bad boys (and bad girls) make the best heroes anyway, since most of us have less trouble identifying with a pig than a saint. The People Vs. Larry Flynt presents the infamous pornographer as a likable slob who faced down the big guys and won. Multi-Academy Award winning director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amedeus) has made an engaging, funny film that captures the zeitgeist of the 1970s and early '80s, even if it doesn't get all the facts exactly right.

A lot of people seem concerned with the historical accuracy of this film, so for the record, let's all just admit that Flynt was an offensive guy who published an offensive magazine that not only featured unobstructed beaver shots and graphic drawings of Santa Claus, but was also racist, dumb and disturbing, regularly featuring cartoons like "Chester the Child Molester" which is, I think, self-explanatory. Forman has cleaned up Flynt's act considerably, perhaps not so much in the interest of revising history as in the interest of telling a compelling story. Probably Flynt was more of a disgusting guy and less of a First Amendment crusader than Forman paints him as; but in Forman's version, Flynt has the virtue of being interesting.

Forman portrays Flynt (Woody Harrelson) as a lifelong capitalist with a big heart who has one burning virtue that makes him a success--he does whatever the hell he wants. The film takes us from Flynt's early days as a strip club owner through his ascension to a head of a huge corporation. He goes from the bottom of the food chain to the top, and what makes the character so funny is that he doesn't really change at all. He's just as crass, rude and unreasonable as a big businessman as when he was a nobody; maybe more so, going so far as to sport a T-shirt that says "Fuck This Court" and throw oranges at a judge during one of his many obscenity trials. Forman gives us a version of Flynt as an impish, natural man, the Bart Simpson of the adult publishing world.

On his way to the top, Flynt acquires a wife, the stripper Althea (Courtney Love) and gets paralyzed from the neck down by a sniper who's never apprehended. One of the best aspects of this film is the unerring way it manages to capture a certain spirit of the '70s on film--namely, the movement of drugs and free love from the upper class, educated, '60s counter-culture to their broad embrace by the working class in the '70s. Along the way, turning on and getting down were freed from the veil of "ideals" or "statements" and revealed as aspects of the hedonistic drive to party.

Forman captures this if-it-feels-good-do-it-spirit with a dead-on aim, from Flynt's hot tub parties to Althea's amazing earth-slut wardrobe, to the general attitude of the Hustler staff, which is to relax and bring the world naked ladies.

This first half is the best part of Larry Flynt because it's funny. Things turn a bit sour, though, after Flynt is shot. At this point Flynt can't move around much, not only because he's in a wheelchair but because he's also often incarcerated. The challenge for Forman, it seems, is to give Flynt an inner life. Forman responds by trying to make him into something more than a sleazemonger. Flynt slowly develops scruples and ideals and begins to quest after his constitutional rights. Though the courtroom scenes have a strange, documentary feel, and though Forman does a great job bringing the debate over First Amendment rights to life, it's a little hard to take Flynt seriously as a man of ideas.

But at about the point that Flynt becomes less vivid, his wife Althea, who by now has early '80s punk hair, begins barreling down the mesmerizing path of self-destruction. It's a spectacular decline and Courtney Love is a natural in the role, giggling and falling down in the aisle of courtroom after courtroom. There's never a dull moment in this movie, even if Forman sometimes makes us stretch to believe that Larry Flynt had more on his mind than naked ladies.

The People Vs. Larry Flynt is playing at Century Park (620-0750) and El Dorado (745-6241) cinemas.

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