Let’s say you don’t think Howard Stern is the King of All Media any more than you think Michael Jackson is the King of Pop or that Charles will ever get to be the king of England. And let’s say you are neither a rabid fan nor an outraged hater of the radio jock who once attempted to launch a superhero character he oh-so-wittily called Fartman, a project that sputtered and went nowhere. Let’s assume instead that you think of Howard Stern, if you think of him much at all, as one of those heat-seeking phenomena that appear on the cultural landscape during times of conservative dithering — a vulgar court jester who serves as a steam valve for decent folks choked by hypocritical platitudes about political correctness and family values, as well as a lowest-common-denominator validation for dumb jerks who are thrilled to have their fondest sexist and racist dirty thoughts blurted out loud by a 43-year-old husband and father obsessed with titties and homosexuals.
For you — for me — the character of ”outrageous” Howard Stern presented in Private Parts is disorienting. Who is this 6’5” cuddly toy with the rococo helmet of hair who passes himself off as Stern? The on-screen guy claims to be the leering, raging wild man of the airwaves, but he takes exquisite pains to make clear that he’s actually a neurotic, punily endowed loser, grateful and devoted to his saintly wife, Alison. This Stern inspires an apoplectic program manager to call him ”the motherf—–‘ Antichrist,” yet wants us to love him. He means to shock, but he wants to go Hollywood.
He can’t have it both ways.
Private Parts is, of course, adapted from Stern’s remarkably best-selling autobiography of the same name, in which the author intersperses the chronology of his professional and personal life with vivid information and opinions about everything from his masturbatory preferences to his analysis of the ”sweetest fruit of the civil rights movement” for black men (”Porking WHITE BABES!”). Stern the writer swings his bat at everything and everyone in sight: Oprah Winfrey (”a big dolt with an empty, oversized head and $250 million”), Don Imus (he calls his radio nemesis Shit Stain), Joan Rivers (”How much longer can she go on milking the death of her husband, Edgar, for ratings?”). He’s brutal, but equal-opportunity brutal; his id is splattered provocatively all over the page.
Shaped and softened by producer Ivan Reitman, screenwriters Len Blum and Michael Kalesniko, and director Betty Thomas, however, the movie-star Stern is a defanged tiger, funny but tranquilized. ”I’ve got to go all the way!” he huffs at one point, staking his claim for artistic freedom. Yet about the furthest this endearing rebel goes is to make a few mild comments about lesbians, a Sternian fixation. He poses with big-breasted bimbos. He reenacts the controversial episode in which he made fun of his wife’s miscarriage (the heinousness of which is tempered by demonstrations that he really, really loves her). And he tortures the WNBC radio executive he calls Pig Vomit until the poor schmuck, hilariously embodied by Paul Giamatti, crumbles.
By big-studio standards, Thomas was a smart choice as director. The Brady Bunch Movie and HBO’s The Late Shift demonstrate her bright, winking appreciation of popular culture at its most outsized, and the big-gal authority she brings to the project is just the juice needed to offset all the bad-boy blither about sex. In that regard, Thomas provides some of the same female approbation Stern’s longtime sidekick Robin Quivers brings to the party and creates an appealing feeling of fun. The star, no stranger to dressing up and acting out, proves to be a game and likable actor, and Thomas and company draw on that likability to shade him as vulgar — but not off-putting; puerile — but not indefensibly sexist; outrageous — but never alienatingly racist.
This is a great pity. It’s laying a lot, I know, on what is essentially a live-action cartoon to say that the Hollywood manicuring of Howard Stern is not unlike the whitewash Larry Flynt received in The People vs. Larry Flynt. But analogies aren’t out of line. If Stern really believes in going all the way, why not hold out for a movie that really shows him like he is? Isn’t that what makes Stern f—–‘ No. 1? Private Parts is exactly the sort of compromised activity Howard Stern would have a blast ragging on, if he weren’t busy ingratiating himself in a promotional campaign. As it is, the Howard Stern in Private Parts is essentially a fartman — rude, amusing, attention getting, but no more powerful than hot air.