They got to him. I suppose it was only a matter of time before Hollywood and its deep dirty pockets came calling, turning Howard’s head with their fancy decaf drinks and promises of unlimited fame, carrying him into the mainstream and beyond—a profile in the New Yorker, guaranteed, complete with a respectfully humorous caricature.

Why Americans need to believe that their celebrities are nice people has never been clear to me, and there are probably other Howard Stern fans fed up with the cult of the angelic superstar who care only about how well a celebrity does his job—that’s the time he spends with us. Stern provides a bracing reversal of the usual celebrity personality sandwich—it is his act and not his secret self that is lewd, corrupt, vain, and no respecter of boundaries.

Thanks to the publicity blitz presently under way, people who have never listened to Stern’s radio program now know about such humanizing details as his lousy childhood, his granite work ethic, his deep-seated insecurity, and his fidelity to Alison, his one and only wife. These are the kinds of things you tell someone whose sympathy or absolution you’re after. But as Private Parts, the slick, meretricious biographical movie based on Stern’s hugely entertaining book of the same name, explains to nonfans, there isn’t much more to him than nice-guyness. They aren’t asked, as the book’s audience was asked, to hold two ideas in their heads at once and accept this public fountain of raunch and offense as a private good egg. They’re told about the rise and triumph of a wonderful human being and asked to love him.

You’d have to be a real Grinch to hate the Howard Stern of Private Parts. What’s not to love? He is seen kissing his pregnant wife’s belly to prove how radiant she is; he’s shown demanding that a pal from a previous job be hired by his new bosses; he explains to his loyal sidekick that he let her take a fall and get fired as a way of fighting for what’s right. Only small-minded corporate drones don’t love Howard—they call him the Antichrist, a term whose hyperbole and anti-Semitism directly serve Stern’s pompous paranoia.

Even if it’s true that sensitive Stern was so disgusted after being forced to fire someone early in his career that he threw up afterward, it just isn’t manners to boast about it on the big screen. Private Parts is riddled with self-aggrandizing moments like that—the whole thing is one overlong paean to Stern’s decency. But his decency isn’t what’s interesting about him, it isn’t what he does best, and it isn’t what built him an audience—call them us—by now weary of defending him to self-righteous nonlisteners.

Stern made his name and reputation on a lot of offensive garbage, to be sure, but he doesn’t tell lies and he doesn’t let others get away with duplicity, not in the name of celebrityhood or anything else. When he and Robin Quivers do the news no one is spared, whether they’re imagining what Bob Dole should hold in his right hand, for variety—a dildo, a banana, a balloon—or airing sound clips of O.J. Simpson reciting his book on tape over and over, until it forms a kind of hideous aural tapestry. The rest of the time he’s making small talk about big tits and disparaging his dick size; that part isn’t so much offensive as boring.

Private Parts edges toward showing how smart Stern can be and how negligently he can step over the line, but edges away too quickly. In a telling aside, Quivers smirks, “We have the best-looking audience,” because all women callers describe themselves in Playmate terms. It is funny to hear women call the show and, unsure of fantasy proportions, send the numbers way up (“I’m 5-11, 42DD”) and way down (“102 pounds, 18-inch waist”). While Quivers rolls her eyes, Howard laps it up—this is radio, after all, where his obsession with female nakedness is slightly absurd.

But director Betty Thomas foolishly breaks point of view—otherwise consistently Howard’s—to prove that all the callers are stacked blondes doing precisely what they describe themselves as doing. In a bit that got him fired from our own DC101, Stern asks a woman to strip and straddle her speaker so he can give her an over-the-airwaves orgasm; the camera cuts to her side of the conversation. She is—of course—a beautiful blonde in a big, light-filled apartment and, if we are to believe Thomas’ conception of this event, actually does get it on with her speaker.

One funny interlude goes a small way toward explaining Stern’s seeming inability to know when to quit. After Alison miscarries, he jollies her out of her depression with a sick riff about the fate of the fetus. The next day, he expands on the subject to millions of listeners, using a completely different tack, one that sounds more like a muddled attempt to shock his audience than a sweet attempt to cheer up his wife. When Alison yells at him, he’s baffled.

But the miscarriage incident is almost anomalous here, since Stern’s vaunted offensiveness is presented in tidy packages: two minutes angering blacks, one lisping-homosexual skit, a naked massage interrupted by evil execs so Howard can stand up for himself and for the freedom of radio yet again. What about the freedom to wish cancer upon Kathie Lee? Or to imagine what he’d do to various pneumatic beauties after Alison’s death? Or to unleash “Stuttering John” Melendez on Raquel Welch and ask her if they’re sagging yet? Those bits are vintage Howard Stern—he’s the guy who’ll say what the worst part of us is thinking.

It is telling that the one member of Stern’s on-air entourage featured prominently in Private Parts is amiable man-of-all-sound-effects Fred Norris and not the well-paid patsy Melendez, with his touching infirmity and rude mouth. As for Alison, listeners know her as a yenta and a whiner—her cascading “How-werrrd” is a Stern show staple. But the transformation of the movie Alison is like something out The Player: As embodied by Mary McCormack, she’s a soft-voiced WASP angel with a streak of steel. It is slightly nauseating to wonder if it was self-hatred or mere wishful thinking that led to this casting decision.

Private Parts is often funny, and watching Stern and his band of troublemakers bamboozle the suits is merry work—a set piece shows them finding legitimate ways to say the Seven Dirty Words on the air with a Match Game parody no less debauched than the original. But I can’t stop thinking of the onscreen Howard nobly retching into the toilet. The old Howard would have skewered anyone pompous enough to appear in a scene like that. If this is the mainstream Howard Stern, they can have him.

Kama Sutra is not, as the subtitle has it, “A Tale of Love”; it’s toneless kitsch exoticism with plenty of heaving bosoms and clouds of ebony Barbie hair, even on the men—it’s Two Moon Jaipur. Director Mira Nair thinks she’s telling a story of sexual politics and female independence against the richly colored backdrop of 16th-century India, but she has actually made a tedious, lengthy episode of the Red Sari Diaries. Gasping softcore life lessons are apparently now the province of other lucky cultures.

Lovely, confident Maya (Indira Varma) is a servant girl who becomes the rival of her childhood friend Tara (Sarita Choudhury), who is engaged to the king. After vengefully bedding the king (The English Patient’s Naveen Andrews) just before his marriage to Tara, Maya gets herself expelled from the court (by the least convincing hunchback in film history), wanders a bit, then comes across a hunky, shirtless sculptor (Ramon Tikaram). Since she has nowhere to stay, he suggests a nearby academy of love, conveniently located at the foot of the temple at Khajuraho, where Rasa Devi (Rekha) teaches the Kama Sutra to female adepts.

Maya attends classes but skips the exams, as it were, by home-schooling with the sculptor. He uses her as a muse but spurns her love, so she returns to Rasa Devi with a mission: to learn the Kama Sutra head to toe and courtesan the living daylights out of her ex-best friend’s husband.

The script (by Nair and Helena Kriel) is so coarse and trivial the audience I saw it with was sniggering. Filmed in India and costumed with great charm and ingenuity, Kama Sutra’s visual gorgeousness is unsurpassed, but then the actors say crap like, “A servant is a master in disguise”—nice try, pal—and “Honor and shame may be two sides of the same coin.” Maya dresses in sexy male drag just as Kim Basinger did in 9 1/2 Weeks, and there’s near-nude hunk wrestling, a sort of chain-mail suit of pearls, lots of meaningful looks exchanged while others meaningfully take note, and elephants, elephants, elephants! Believe me, this is the dullest movie you will ever see with Kama Sutra for a title.CP

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