One of the truly bizarre careers in recent American cultural life provides the source of tart amusement in "The People vs. Larry Flynt." Milos Forman's first picture in seven years uses the shenanigans and occasional serious gestures of an unabashed pornographer to serve up a roller-coaster ride across the sociopolitical landscape as it turned from anything-goes irreverence to the hypocritical self-righteousness of the Reagan years.

One of the truly bizarre careers in recent American cultural life provides the source of tart and tasty amusement in “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” A vastly entertaining lesson in the importance of the First Amendment, Milos Forman’s first picture in seven years uses the shenanigans and occasional serious gestures of an unabashed pornographer to serve up a roller-coaster ride across the sociopolitical landscape as it turned from anything-goes irreverence in the early ’70s to the hypocritical self-righteousness of the Reagan years. Along the way, it also tells a poignant and powerful love story, one sparked by a sensational performance by rock star Courtney Love. Like most Oliver Stone productions, pic will get as much ink off the entertainment pages as it will on them, and strong reviews, subject’s notoriety and solid audience appeal combine to spell potent B.O. for this year-end release.

Film world preemed as the closing-night attraction at the New York Film Festival. Among other things, picture reps a curious confluence of two strong and contrasting artistic sensibilities in Forman and Stone. Forman’s trademark humanistic satire and unemphatic storytelling technique would seem almost unalterably opposed to Stone’s brash, expressionistic, manipulative tendencies. But the material that brought them together points up their mutual interest in the theme of the outsider against society, the individual compelled to fight the system regardless of personal cost.

Penned by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose own partiality to mavericks was firmly established by “Ed Wood,” picture quickly sketches the essentially unwitting rise to riches of poor Kentucky backwoods boy Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) with Hustler magazine.

While still running sleazy Cincinatti strip clubs, he takes up with one of his dancers, Althea (Love), who is quite willing to share other women with him and stands by him through the years despite some insane developments and provocations.

Easily the raunchiest of the mainstream skin monthlies, due principally to its wide-open crotch shots, Hustler emerged as a major target for anti-porn crusaders, and Flynt served time in the late ’70s even as the publication continued to prosper. “All I’m guilty of is bad taste,” he declared as he began getting accustomed to his unlikely status as leading champion of civil liberties.

Even though the argument is an old one, one of the film’s most visually effective sequences positions Flynt onstage at a Free Speech rally in front of the image of a giant American flag, a la “Patton,” delivering a talk about the respective degrees of obscenity to be found in violence and sex, as a rapid-fire montage of both unfolds behind him.

Flynt’s life takes a radical turn when he comes under the influence of evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover), the president’s sister, no less, and becomes a born again Christian. This doesn’t go down well with Althea or Hustler’s readers, but the conflict disappears when Flynt is gunned down outside a Georgia courthouse, paralyzing him from the waist down (rendering him, crucially and ironically, unable to have sex again).

Shot full of mind-numbing drugs, Flynt and Althea spend the next few years holed up in a Hollywood mansion as the empire is overseen by Larry’s brother Jimmy (Brett Harrelson). When Flynt finally emerges, with his videotape of the FBI sting of John DeLorean, he acts crazier than ever, showing up in court wearing an American flag diaper and telling his beleaguered but resilient lawyer, Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton), “I’m your dream client. I’m fun, I’m rich , and I’m always in trouble.”

But while Flynt has the willpower to kick his drug dependency, his wife does not, and she spirals down into an addiction that leads to AIDS and, in a searing scene, her death.

Though devastated, Flynt rebounds with the most significant action of his life, his battle with Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul) that climaxes in an outstanding sequence in which Isaacman delivers an adroit brief on behalf of the First Amendment before the U.S. Supreme Court.

For starters, it’s good to see Forman tackling relatively contemporary lives and issues again after having made nothing but period pieces in the ’80s. His barbed social satire lacks some of the sting it possessed in his Czech films and in his first American feature, the terrific “Taking Off,” but he is alert and responsive to both the personal and political nuances of Alexander and Karaszewski’s insightful screenplay, which reveals much more about an already well-known public personality than almost any viewer is likely to know.

As before, Forman’s casting is surprising and amazingly successful in its mix of pros, unknowns and non-thesps. Harrelson’s quite agreeable lead performance takes the clear position that there was no grand scheme in Flynt’s mind at the beginning of his career, and that he was not seized by noble or patriotic ideals in his court fights. “If they’ll protect a scumbag like me, then they’ll protect all of you,” he declares after his Supreme Court victory, which is as far as his political philosophy takes him.

But Love is the revelation here, as she delivers an impulsive, nakedly emotional, quicksilver turn that brings the central romance alive whenever she’s onscreen. She’s a natural, the camera loves her, and she manages to express Althea’s key components of brashness, insecurity, emotional fidelity and lust for life. Norton is outstanding as the lawyer whose loyalty to his client breaks at times but who rises to the heights during his Supreme test.

James Cromwell and Paul are dominant in their heavy roles as Charles Keating and Jerry Falwell, respectively, while the roster of non-actors registering strongly is led by former Clinton campaign manager James Carville, as a stern anti-porn prosecutor, and Hanover, “Good Day New York” correspondent and wife of Gotham Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, as Jimmy Carter’s sister.

Although gentler and more even-handed than most polemical works of the time, “The People vs. Larry Flynt” possess quite a bit of the irreverent, anti-establishment feeling of contrarian films of the ’70 s, which makes it positively thirst-quenching in the context of conformist studio films of the ’90s.

Tech credits all strongly but unobtrusively contribute to the sense of period verisimilitude.

The People vs. Larry Flynt

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Phoenix Pictures of an Ixtlan production. Produced by Oliver Stone, Janet Yang, Michael Hausman. Directed by Milos Forman. Screenplay, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski.

Crew

Camera (DuArt and Deluxe color, Technicolor prints; Panavision widescreen), Philippe Rousselot; editor, Christopher Tellefsen; music, Thomas Newman; production design, Patrizia von Brandenstein; art direction, James Nezda , Shawn Hausman; set decoration, Maria A. Nay, Amy Wells; costume design, Theodor Pistek, Arianne Phillips; sound (Dolby SR/SDDS), Chris Newman; associate producers, Scott Ferguson, George Linardos; assistant director, David McGiffert; casting, Francine Maisler. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Oct. 11, 1996. (In New York Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 127 min.

With

Larry Flynt - Woody Harrelson
Althea Leasure - Courtney Love
Alan Isaacman - Edward Norton
Charles Keating - James Cromwell
Arlo - Crispin Glover
Simon Leis - James Carville
Jimmy Flynt - Brett Harrelson
Ruth Carter Stapleton - Donna Hanover
Slick Reporter - Norm McDonald
Chester - Vincent Sciavelli
Milo - Miles Chapin
Jerry Falwell - Richard Paul
Judge Thomas Mantke (Cincinatti Court) - D'Army Bailey
Roy Grutman - Burt Neuborne
The Assassin - Jan Triska
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