Howard Stern is the fourth controversial bad boy in as many months to get a movie made about him, the other three being Larry Flynt and Beavis and Butt-Head. Of the four, I prefer Beavis and Butt-Head: At least they didn’t get a mainstream face-lift the way Flynt and Stern have, and nobody touted them as defenders of free speech or champions of good, dirty fun. If pornographers and shock-jocks insist on their right to be offensive, why do they seem to crave our respect and approval? Private Parts, which stars Stern as himself, is just about the last word in disingenuous self-glorification. The movie is less offensive than defensive. Poor Howard! Nobody understands him. Some of the film is funny; I laughed at Stern’s battles with his priggish boss, played to cartoonish perfection by Paul Giamatti. But overall it plays like another stage of Stern’s ongoing campaign to win the hearts and minds of America.
What’s limp and soft about Private Parts is that it aims shamelessly for the heart (when it isn’t elbowing us in the ribs with all the leering about lesbians) and misses the mind. That sounds like an absurd criticism, but I’ve heard Stern on the radio and read his first book, and he can be genuinely witty (when he isn’t being cutesy and puerile). If you don’t believe me, here’s no less a comedy authority than Albert Brooks quoted in a recent New Yorker piece on Stern: “What makes him really special is simple: he’s funny … Howard has wit, and wit stands out like crazy.” Not in this movie, it doesn’t. Instead we get scenes calculated to show us what a sensitive mensch Howard really is. I don’t doubt that Stern loves his heroically patient wife Alison (played here by Murder One‘s Mary McCormack in a warm and bemused performance), but I was uncomfortable with the way the movie keeps trotting her out as proof that the sultan of shock radio has a tender side. The script also glides right over Alison’s fury at Stern for joking on the air about her miscarriage. Gee, doesn’t she get it? It’s all in fun.
Private Parts follows a familiar comedy arc: it’s Good Morning New York, with the fearless radio hero fighting uptight bureaucrats and coming to grips with his own libido instead of the horrors of war. Director Betty Thomas (The Brady Bunch Movie) works with her usual wobbly tone of deadpan irony, and the movie is cruddy-looking (surprising, coming from cinematographer Walt Lloyd, who shot sex, lies and videotape) and ineptly staged. Guaranteed laugh-getters like Fartman and the Kielbasa Queen (whose infamous trick is ruined by intrusive reaction shots) turn out not to be so guaranteed.
As for Stern, he may be the master of his domain on the radio, but he doesn’t necessarily have a future in movies. He isn’t bad in Private Parts — he has some inspired sad-sack moments playing himself as a dorky college kid who can’t even score with a blind woman. But what comes next? What’s left to discover in this man who blurts out his life and fantasies on the air and in books? In Private Parts, Howard Stern does in cinematic terms what he did all through college. By the end, we realize he’s pretty much shot his wad.