WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: The life and times of ‘shock jock’ Howard Stern, chronicling his rise from college radio to fame and infamy as New York’s number 1 DJ; and his turbulent relationship with Alison, his college sweetheart, who frequently finds her private life featured in, or at odds with, her husband’s very public outrages.
When a film opens with its central figure dropping in to an awards ceremony as ‘Fartman’, you quickly get the idea that it’s not going to be Gandhi, regardless of whether you’re actually acquainted with the man inside the costume. I only had the vaguest of ideas about Howard Stern before watching this film, so it served as a useful introduction as well as a history.
First impressions are not exactly favourable, as a host of rock stars at the awards show look upon Stern (played by the man himself), a gangling figure with 80s Soft Metal hair, with a mixture of amusement and contempt. His narrated pleas that he is misunderstood are compromised by his lecherous undressing of women, notably the cute passenger to whom he tells his life story on a flight back to his family the next day.
Howard is the son of a radio engineer, and although his father hardly encourages his offspring to follow in his footsteps, Howard falls in love with radio anyway and is determined to forge a career in broadcasting. His first attempts in college are clumsy, a statement which applies to his wooing of women as much as his radio manner; but a prize-winning film helps him bag pretty student Alison (Mary McCormack). Neither his career nor his marriage to Alison are immediate successes, but Howard eventually relaxes into the role of DJ, toning down his Kermit-alike voice and injecting comedy to go with the music with the help of voices man Fred Norris (also himself) and willingly naughty news anchor Robin Quivers (herself).
The team zoom up the career ladder but court controversy at every step, not least when Stern shares details of his wife’s miscarriage with jokes that everyone – not least Mrs Stern – finds tasteless. They also find that the big NBC networks, to which Stern delivers huge audiences with his near-the-knuckle material, have big concerns about the material. In New York especially, programme manager Kenny (Paul Giamatti) has Stern as his nemesis, and no amount of threats, trickery, punishment or pleading will prevent Howard from causing a furore, the listeners desperate to hear ‘what he’s going to say next.’
It would be ridiculous to complain about Private Parts being rude even if you’ve never heard of Howard Stern and what he’s famous for – there’s a pretty big clue in the title, after all. It’s clear from the off that Stern is a letch and neither he nor the film make any bones about it, recreating many scenes where he came into contact with women (nearly all large-breasted, it would appear) or, in the film’s big set-piece, gave them pleasure over the airwaves. Much of this is entirely gratuitous, of course, but the nudity is part and parcel of Stern’s universe and fits in as such.
The issue, then, ceases to be one of taste and becomes one of credibility, as the film strives to present Howard as both an outrageous, sex-obsessed loon and at the same time a faithful, caring family man. Strangely, Private Parts succeeds by presenting Stern as both the hugely successful, hugely egotistical hero of American radio, and also the insecure, ridiculous loser looked on with derision (as in the first scene, reflected at the end in another imaginary awards show), immensely conscious of the limitations of his voice and of his own private parts. The balance between the two predictably skews towards Stern as a good guy, loyal to his colleagues and never actually straying from his wife, but the film is by no means a whitewash, although the interlude with the actress early in the Sterns’ marriage is suspiciously clean.
By having most of the key players as themselves, Private Parts also feels authentic, with Robin Quivers in particular providing good rapport with Stern; however, when the film occasionally presents documentary-style talking heads, the presence of actresses such as McCormack and station manager Allison Janney (very funny, as usual) jars alongside the ‘real’ personalities. It’s also clear that the character of Kenny, an obnoxious little upstart played with endearing pugnacity/pugnaciousness by Giamatti, is a composite created to vindicate many of Stern’s more extreme broadcasts, but crucially the action is – by and large – funny, and in the final summary this is what really matters.
The comedy derived from Stern’s story is important because outside of America in particular, the level of recognition and interest in Howard Stern is necessarily limited. There are many people for whom Private Parts will be an instant turn off, and more still who will dislike the ‘hero’ enough in the first five minutes to shut the film off and never go back to it. In general, though, Stern shows enough of his flaws, and Betty Thomas delivers laughter with a sufficiently light touch, to make this movie an enjoyably adult romp.