Boogie Nights, an epic tale of porn, pleasure, and excess, offers a purer hit of exhilaration than any movie this year. The exhilaration comes from the outrageousness of the subject matter, and from a filmmaker working at peak virtuosity — though writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, at the extraordinary age of 27, appears to have arrived at his mastery virtually overnight.
Anderson traces the rise and fall of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a 17-year-old San Fernando Valley busboy who, on the basis of his looks, his sexual prowess, and his very large member, becomes Dirk Diggler, the hottest name in the adult-film business. Eddie starts out as a shallow ’70s kid surrounded by Cheryl Tiegs and Bruce Lee posters. Even his fantasies are kitsch — he stares at his bedroom mirror, doing passionate kung fu kicks. Yet there’s a sweetness to him, to his eagerness to get lost in the junkiness of pop dreams. As Eddie morphs into Dirk, he remains, in essence, a kid, and his cascading fortunes parallel the metamorphosis of the porn industry, the transition from the bedazzled hedonism of the late ’70s to the capitalist narcissism of the ’80s, when video took over and the spirit of hardcore grew colder, kinkier, nastier. Pornography may be an ”underground” medium (though let’s be honest — someone is buying those billions of dollars’ worth of tapes), but the audacity of Boogie Nights is the way it uses its glimpse into the porn underworld to mark a pivotal shift in the soul and spirit of America itself.
Anderson sets the stakes from his thrilling opening shot, in which the camera frames the film’s title on a nightclub marquee, does a funky little curlicue, and then moves to the disco across the street, where it pushes onto the dance floor and cruises among the customers, introducing us, almost incidentally, to the film’s characters — the porn ”family” that will turn Eddie into a triple-X sensation. There’s Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), the wryly paternal, sad-eyed director who longs, with touching naïveté, to make porn a respectable medium. There’s his live-in leading lady, the gently addled Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), who becomes Eddie’s nurturing ”mother,” as well as Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a luscious jailbait blond who’ll gleefully shed every item of clothing but her skates. As the camera dances and glides, we hear the disco standard ”The Best of My Love,” which somehow never sounded this ecstatic. The whole scene is ecstatic — a celebration of movement, of sensuality, of a young filmmaker who just had to shoot the works in the first five minutes.
He keeps shooting the works. Merging the stylistic effusions of Scorsese, Altman, Tarantino, and Demme, Anderson pulls back the curtain on the Los Angeles porn demimonde, a playpen of sleaze that’s the true bottom layer of show business. We see the coke sluts in their halter tops, the scary financial backers (who are in the business, in part, to go out with the sluts), the goofy-outlaw ”actors” who are like hunks of meat vaguely clinging to their dignity. Sexually, Boogie Nights is miraculously discreet — it suggests everything and, explicitly at least, shows very little. Anderson makes wild comedy out of the porn shoots, which are like Ed Wood with nudity and polyester. The film loves the ardent amateurism of these fake filmmakers. For Anderson, the plastic garishness of ’70s fashions and decor is more than a matter of camp nostalgia. It speaks to the ironic innocence of what may be the last moment in this country when people simply did what they wanted.
Mark Wahlberg, in a star-making performance, has the kind of electric ingenuousness that John Travolta did in Saturday Night Fever. He’s sexy yet vulnerable — he disarms us with his boyish cool, with the razory smile that cuts into the pale, almost angelic yearning of his gaze. The most shocking aspect of Boogie Nights is its tenderness. Anderson sees the humanity of everyone on screen. He has written a great part for Reynolds, who, after 20 years, has his authority back, his beautiful charm and suavely witty ease.
Anderson stares at Dirk, Jack, and the others enraptured, even as they fall from grace. The second half of Boogie Nights is one long plunge into dread, mayhem, and cocaine craziness. There may, at first, seem something a bit schematic in Dirk’s dissolution. When he is tossed off of Jack’s set and ends up turning gay tricks in a parking lot, you wonder: Isn’t thereanother porn director in town? Yet Anderson never loses his sense of comedy (the scenes in which Dirk tries to launch a career as a Van Halen-esque rocker are priceless), and there’s a subtle brilliance to the film’s ominous downward spiral. It’s not just that we’re witnessing what porn leads to. We’re seeing the dark fruit of what was always there. The happy promiscuity, the ”stardom,” even the performers’ fake names — all suddenly seem a castle in the air. The castle, of course, is the eternal ’70s party, the promise of endless flesh, endless bliss.
At the climax, Anderson stages the most hypnotic scene of the decade, as Dirk and his buddies attempt to rip off a rich jerk (Alfred Molina) who is so out of his mind on drugs he’s forgotten there’s anyone in the world but him. With its power-ballad creepiness, its crazy-scary exploding firecrackers that at once parody and out-intensify the anything-for-kicks virtuosity of Tarantino (look closely and you’ll see that Molina, in spirit, is playing Tarantino), this blow-up catharsis exploits the rush of thrill-happy moviemaking even as it turns it into the last circle of hell. It’s a vision of how pleasure itself became our ultimate addiction. A