Private Parts

(Betty Thomas, USA, 1997)


In the '60s, as the old-style Hollywood studio system fell to pieces and television threatened box office revenue, mainstream movies went desperately hip. This gambit resulted in films decked out with visible signs of the counter-culture (free love, drugs, revolution, biker gangs), but ludicrously devoid of any true familiarity with the radical lifestyles and values of the period.

This sorry spectacle of mainstreaming continues today in Private Parts, based on the autobiography of the contemporary shock jock radio star Howard Stern. What on earth went wrong with this potentially fascinating project? Stern embodies an extreme point of American pop culture today: tasteless, anarchic, scatological, wilfully politically incorrect. Like Larry Flynt, he comes on as the brash, ugly little guy from the working class who makes good and scandalises the middle-class, middle-management establishment.

So why is Private Parts so banal and boring? For unfathomable reasons, this version of Stern's life opts for a modest, folksy, almost amateurish approach to its subject. Stern appears as himself, as do many of his intimate associates and radio cohorts. Not one of them has the slightest iota of screen charisma. Stern seems at pains to present himself as a normal, likable guy, with an utterly average life story – leaving us perplexed as to the origins of his wicked, angry humour.

Betty Thomas' direction alternates between telemovie-style flatness and transparently contrived attempts at cool, crazy playfulness (mockumentary passages and silly chapter titles filmed on Super 8). As in those ersatz groovy movies of the '60s, the dead giveaway of this film's complete inauthenticity is its laughable inability to match its subcultural content with an appropriately daring or outrageous style.

Unquestionably the oddest and most dubious aspect of this supposedly candid screen autobiography is its treatment of Stern's sexuality. It sets out as an essay on male anxieties in this area – although his wife Alison (Mary McCormack) assures us, in an intimate into-camera moment, that Howard's worries about his penis size are "exaggerated". More perplexing still is the question of the many casual sex temptations we see strewn in poor Howard's path. On the evidence of this movie, Stern has never slept with any woman in his life other than the one he married. He must be the purest 'pop pornographer' in the business.

MORE Thomas: The Brady Bunch Movie, I Spy, 28 Days

© Adrian Martin May 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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