NEW YORK — Most moviegoers agree that "The First Wives Club" is not a cinematic masterpiece. What accounts for its huge popularity, mainly among women, is that it touches a timely chord - dealing with issues and emotions that the great majority of Hollywood pictures ignore, belittle, or dismiss even though they're strongly relevant to an enormous number of people.
The same can be said of "Waiting to Exhale," which gained a similar following among African-American women. Slowly but steadily, Hollywood is learning that box-office gold can be mined from timely, topical issues.
In bygone years, such material has been left primarily to TV dramas and network movies-of-the-week, made on quicker schedules and better able to keep up with rapidly shifting public attitudes. A trend is developing toward big-screen treatment of cutting-edge topics, however, and this year's New York Film Festival reinforced it by spotlighting some of the newest examples.
The People vs. Larry Flynt moved from the movie-review section to the op-ed pages even before its American premire as the filmfest's closing-night attraction. New York Times columnist Frank Rich called it "the most timely and patriotic movie of the year" while also warning that it "truly offers something to offend everyone."
As indeed it does. The title character is a real-life pornographer who started as a nightclub entrepreneur, built a sleazy magazine into a publishing empire, became a fundamentalist Christian under the guidance of a nationally famous evangelist, then turned from religion to drugs after being severely wounded by a would-be assassin.
The film's primary interest is his lengthy court battle with Jerry Falwell, leader of the conservative Moral Majority organization, who sued Flynt for "inflicting emotional distress" by satirizing him in a vicious magazine parody. The climax pivots on the question of whether lewd, hostile, exploitative, and blatantly repulsive speech is protected under constitutional law.
Directed by Milos Forman, who won Academy Awards for "Amadeus" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the movie stars Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, and Edward Norton. Audiences may despise it or admire it - or both - but it's as real as the headlines Flynt inspired and as topical as the still-knotty issues of censorship and civility in a democratic society.
A growing number of American movies have dealt with suburban life in the past couple of years, with young directors like Hal Hartley and Edward Burns portraying their own stomping grounds in films like "Simple Men" and "The Brothers McMullen." Richard Linklater etches what might be the darkest, most cautionary picture of this territory in subUrbia, an up-to-the-minute drama suggesting that alcohol, ennui, and violence are as dangerous in the once-idealized suburbs as in the cities that loom nearby.
Based on a stage work by Eric Bogosian, who wrote the screenplay, "subUrbia" takes place largely in a convenience-store parking lot where a motley crew of generation Xers hang around, talk about whatever pops into their heads, and dream of the time when their lives will take a turn for the better, preferably with no effort on their parts. Less original than Linklater's earlier "Slacker" and "Before Sunrise," the picture has too many moments when it rambles as aimlessly as the people it's about. Its depiction of suburban alienation seems telling and true, however, sounding a cautionary note worth heeding.
An urgent tone also surges through illtown, a dreamlike depiction of Miami vice focusing on a drug dealer who thinks of his illicit trade as a reliable road to middle-class security. Things aren't nearly so simple, of course, and Nick Gomez's drama offers vivid illustrations of the horrors that can grow from a life of crime. Unfortunately, the film's outreach may be limited by Gomez's habit of mixing poetry with pretentiousness, a trap he avoided in the excellent "Laws of Gravity" and kinetic "New Jersey Drive." Michael Rapaport and Lili Taylor star.
Audiences will find more involving human material in Sling Blade, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who also plays the lead. The main character is Karl, a mentally slow man who once murdered two people and has now been declared "cured" after years in an institution.
Entering the real world for the first time in his adult life, he befriends a young boy and his mother and eventually makes a tragic sacrifice to help his new companions escape a dangerous plight. The film's timeliness stems from its concern with human dignity and justice in the sort of complicated moral situation that is often written off as just another crime story on the evening news.
*'Sling Blade' is due in theaters next month. 'The People vs. Larry Flynt' opens commercially on Dec. 27, and 'subUrbia' will open early next year. 'illtown' is not yet slated for commercial release.