All too often, biopics can feel incredibly weighty, and earning the often deserved title of “Oscar-bait”. This term may sound cynical, but it’s also certainly true that these films are often created with the sole intention of awards contention.
The great Czech director Miloš Forman, in The People vs. Larry Flynt (and later in 1999’s Man on the Moon, a film which I have great affection for), bucks these biopic trends, creating complicated portrayals of historical figures, films that defy the usual genre convention in favor of a real feel for the sense and style of the era, and the personality of the figures depicted.
Man on the Moon is playful, with an almost metatextual commentary in its casting choices, in the ending depicted, in the open questions it leaves for the viewer; this is all very much in the spirit of Andy Kaufman. The People vs. Larry Flynt is blunt, vulgar, and brash, and certainly feels like something that Larry Flynt would have approved of.
The People vs. Larry Flynt (People from here on out) follows the titular Larry Flynt, the founder and publisher of Hustler Magazine, played here by Woody Harrelson (possibly his best lead role). In his almost quixotic crusade for free speech, Flynt clashes with the government, with the church, and with the still-standing institution that is Reverend Jerry Falwell; if he’s not the most sympathetic person out there, it’s because he’s really not trying to be. The curmudgeonly Flynt has no patience for these institutions that he sees as corrupted, flawed, and fake.
The great strength of People is that Forman lets us see both sides – we see that Flynt is right, but we also see the ways in which he shoots himself in the foot – he’s just an asshole, over and over, making all the worst choices for himself and those around him. And of course, Woody Harrelson here is a perfect fit to play this kind of curmudgeon; he has a great grasp on the wry sense of humor required for the character who sees everything as a joke.
Supporting Flynt in his quest is lawyer Alan Isaacman, played by a young Edward Norton. This is a bit of a thankless role – Alan is the guy always tsking at Flynt when he does something wrong, but in the brief moments where the character gets a little latitude, Norton shines.
Also appearing here is Courtney Love as ingenue-turned-wife of Flynt, Althea Leasure. The role is a bit of a cliche – it’s pretty clear early on what direction this character is on – and Love doesn’t really manage to elevate the material beyond what’s on the screen; as a result, the character manages to fall a bit flat.
People is certainly an imperfect film, but it’s a lot more fun than some of the better made “Oscar-bait” type biopics that get made; if I prefer the more manic style of Man on the Moon, I don’t see it at all as a slight on this film, which is still a quite fun one all the same.