Is nothing Private? Review: The answer is no in Howard Stern's intensely personal, tasteless and extremely funny film 'Private Parts.'

March 07, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

First question: Is this Howard's end? First answer: No way. He's very funny in his own "Private Parts." He proves, indisputably, that he is among the 96 percent of the human race than can play itself in a movie.

Second question: Are there too many lesbian jokes?

Second answer: There's no such thing as "too many lesbian jokes."

Third question: Is the Stern gang all there?

Third answer: Hail, hail, the gang's all there. Robin Quivers and Fred Norris get major screen time and Robin, who has actual talent, is really very good. Fred is Fred. What more can be said? Jackie gets two jokes. Stuttering John puts in a late appearance, spraying hysterical mucus on the camera lens; Gary Dell'Abate has a series of black-out pieces introducing the various segments of Howard's life. Nobody ever calls him "Bababooie." Who said God wasn't merciful?

Fourth question: If you hate Howard Stern, what should you do?

Fourth answer: St. John in the Virgin Islands is very nice this time of year and has no movie theaters.

Fifth question: When does this review start?

Fifth answer: The stunning surprise in "Private Parts" isn't the parts, but the private. It boasts the requisite tastelessness, the antic, frequently cracked humor, the reprise of the radio show's superbly calculated chemistry, but it stings and lingers with its intimacy, its expression of yearning, its struggle against self-hatred toward dynamism and self-belief.

Stern may not be or ever become a formal actor, but even in his current evolutionary stage as the Colossus of Toads, he hasn't forgotten his long exile into the torture chamber of nerd hell. Indeed, he probably needs those memories to drive himself forward.

So what we have here is a dramatized biography of a nice Jewish boy who grew rich, famous and powerful by turning drive-time radio into his exclusive Toilets-R-Us franchise (but hilariously), while staying a nice Jewish boy. Always, with the nice Jewish boy.

Howard is a little like the great old Don Rickles, who used to spew dense Joycean soliloquies of sheer venom at the most innocent and harmless of rubes, and after squishing them to pulp, say, "But folks, honestly, we're really brothers under the skin, aren't we?"

Howard's version of this don't-hate-me-because-I'm-a-schmuck mantra is: "I've never cheated on my wife (though I have sat in my underwear in a bubble bath with a nude movie star, I have made love to a woman over the airwaves with the help of a prehensile woofer and I have been massaged by a nude model on the floor of the studio.)"

The movie leaps through Howard's life, affectingly. Seven-, 12-, and 16-year-old actors play the feckless young Howard at various stages of underdevelopment and self-loathing. (Dad's advice to Howard: "Shut up, ya moron!") Then he himself takes over at college age, a gangling twitch of a man so graceless and spindly he appears to carry stork DNA. But no stork was ever so pitiful. He looks like Weird Al Yankovich as painted in Day-Glo on velvet by El Greco. Give Stern credit: In his body language and the anguish on his frequently terrified face, he manages to convey the horror of immediate post-adolescence as well as its core of secret romanticism.

Underneath, the movie really follows what might be called the superhero formula, although the caped crusader it chronicles isn't the legendary F(latulence)man but Supermouth. It begins by explaining origins, it watches as the team, the accouterments, the style are lovingly, piece by piece, assembled. Then it finally addresses a caper, or, in this case, two.

The first is the drama of marriage, and the filmmakers have been astute in inserting one professional actress in the mix, Mary McCormack, as Howard's long-suffering but adored wife Alison. When Howard has his breakthrough -- in Detroit -- he decides he's got to stop being a formal disc jockey, do away with the generic, syrupy voice and speak the truth. Truth hurts, that's what's dangerous about it, particularly as it involves his own life, and soon he's discussing his most intimate realities on the air: the size of his most private part (small), the size of his libido (large) and the size of his least private part (vanity, ego and obsession: mega-gigantic.)

The movie -- and McCormack carries this message -- becomes an accounting of her cost in humiliation. It hurts to hear her husband discussing a miscarriage on the air, or their sex life, or their arguments. It's his "personality," he says. Yeah, but it sounds like murder on the airwaves. It isn't nice to be Mrs. Howard Stern, and the film is an exquisite portrait of the compromise, testiness and love-hate tidal swings in a messy, long-term commitment.

But the film's most sustained narrative is a drama of the workplace; it depicts Howard's battle at NBC when he was hired to be Howard Stern and then told, "But whatever you do, don't be Howard Stern" -- as if Howard could be anything else.

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