Howard Stern rules in ”Private Parts,” a funny and unexpectedly beguiling account of the outrageous humorist’s unlikely rise to the pinnacle of radio celebrity. Closer to a picaresque odyssey of Stern’s effort to assert his own voice on the nation’s straight-laced airwaves than to the gross-out some people may expect, this sharply made biopic starring the subject himself, along with many of his cohorts, should expand the scope of Stern’s success to films. A big opening seems assured, and pic’s sweet, genuinely amusing qualities could win over quite a few non-Sternheads. Prospects offshore, however, where Stern is unknown, would appear meager.
Both loved and loathed for his anything-goes, FCC-offending, sexually uninhibited, controlled anarchy on the air, Stern easily could have cashed in on his notoriety and delivered a wackier, raunchier, more scattershot film that would perhaps have pleased his hardcore radio fans but no one else. Some of his trademark licentiousness pops up, mainly in re-creations of radio broadcasts, but the focus has been placed on a breezy telling of his personal and professional life, with disarming results.
Warning the audience at the outset that ”everything I do is misunderstood,” Stern narrates the story of his ascent to status of New York’s No. 1 DJ in the mid-1980s. Spilling out his neuroses and foibles to dream airplane seat-mate Carol Alt, Stern quickly recalls childhood highlights, including his brief career as a 12-year-old puppet pornographer, his being virtually the only white kid in a black high school, and his early desire for a radio career.
The gangling Stern begins playing himself, in mustache, glasses and goofy ’70s wig, in college, where the dorky record spinner lucks out by meeting Alison (Mary McCormack) and, eventually, getting her to marry him. Stern’s equal-opportunity gibes get an early, and very funny, workout at the expense of the ”mentally challenged” patients with whom Alison works, but, in general, Stern toes the line in his initial radio station gigs in Westchester and Hartford.
When Stern has a close call with infidelity with a starlet in a bathtub, Alison leaves him for a while, and he proceeds alone to Detroit, where he begins working some of his personal crazy stuff onto the air. When that job ends ignobly, he decides that ”I’ve just got to let things fly,” which he does when he lands in Washington, D.C., meets newscaster Robin Quivers and starts working sex into his show in a big way.
Bantering in unbridled fashion with Quivers and early partner Fred Norris, Stern becomes notorious by having women strip in the studio, inducing one to have an orgasm while astride a woofer, and obsessing about lesbians, whom he interviews often. Meanwhile, his ratings soar, so it’s only a matter of time until he’s paged to the Big Apple.
Stern’s titanic battles with WNBC, and the hilarious shenanigans the station drove him to, serve as a fitting climax to Stern’s rise to the top. At least as the network stuffed suits are depicted here, it’s a wonder they hired him at all, and Paul Giamatti gets terrific comic mileage out of his composite role as the young, Southern-accented exec who takes it upon himself to tame Howard Stern.
The more apoplectic Giamatti’s character becomes, the more Stern and his cronies are pushed to on-air gags of unparalleled outrageousness, which in turn propels Stern’s show into the ratings stratosphere. Long flashback ends in 1985 with police madly spiriting Stern, now No. 1 in Gotham, and Alison out of a giant Central Park rally when her water breaks before the birth of their second daughter. An epilogue shows an unbilled Mia Farrow presenting Stern with a best actor award.
Stern may not win any awards for his self-impersonation, but he is not only convincing as himself but quite charming in the bargain, winning audience sympathy first as the gawky, geeky student who feels lucky just to get paid for doing what he likes, then as the classic maverick and underdog who must fight the establishment to do it his way, and ultimately prevails. The obnoxiousness that colors his detractors’ feelings about Stern is largely absent here, and while the star has obviously controlled the portrait that the film presents, the eagerness and sincerity that come through seem genuine, generating considerable goodwill. Stern’s abundant narration is almost always amusing, and at one with his radio image.
Stern’s wife, Alison, is one of the few members of his inner circle not played by the genuine article, and McCormack is appealing in the part. Alison gives her husband a hard time at first about his on-air flirtations and dragging their private life into public purview, but generally she’s a great sport. Quivers is her engaging self, if not quite as hang-loose as some of the others onscreen, and her firing at WNBC and momentary resentment of Stern for not leaving with her provide an interlude of actual drama. Any number of showbiz types, including the late Tiny Tim, pop up briefly.
Given all the possible approaches that could have been taken to presenting Stern onscreen, screenwriters Len Blum and Michael Kalesniko have done an adroit job of condensing Stern’s colorful career and keeping the film on a straight track. Director Betty Thomas has supplied both strong momentum and a welcome light touch, which prevents self-importance from creeping in; Stern’s self-deprecating humor remains intact.
A few chapter breaks, roughly filmed straight-to-camera stuff with scantily clad women being egged on to lewd acts, seem like a hangover from some earlier script concept. Otherwise, it’s a lean, crisp and very entertaining picture.