For a documentary about a combative First Amendment absolutist who, during his 1983 appearance before the Supreme Court on obscenity charges, called the justices “nothing but eight assholes and a token cunt,” Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone is a weirdly lethargic, unfocused film.
Director Joan Brooker-Marks never develops a fresh point of view on the Hustler publisher and free-speech activist. And aside from giving him a platform to vent about the Bush administration and serving up a few choice snippets from old TV news stories and legal depositions, she doesn’t add much to the vast written body of work about Flynt’s life, or one-up the vivid (if slightly soft-pedaled) 1996 drama The People vs. Larry Flynt. There are times when she seems stymied by this oft-told story: The 1978 assassination attempt that put Flynt in a wheelchair is conveyed in a perfunctory collage of TV clips accompanied by disembodied sentences from newscasters—the filmmaker’s equivalent of yadda yadda yadda.
Yet the movie still engages thanks to Flynt, who at 65 seems not so much to have mellowed with age as physically slowed down. His chief virtue is his corrosive honesty, a weapon he turns on himself as well as the world. Whether warning of America’s latent fascist tendencies (“Don’t forget, Hitler was elected”) or dismissing his brief born-again Christian period with “I got over all that,” he’s a thrilling, unsafe folk hero: Will Rogers reincarnated as a pornographer.