The Happy Pornographers

Boogie Nights goes forth and sins cheerfully.

Boogie Nights
New Line Cinema
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

I suppose it sounds strange to call Boogie Nights yet another drama of family values. The film follows a well-hung stud in the Los Angeles porn-flick industry, and it doesn’t shy away from recounting his lewder adventures. It even invites us to love him and all his scummy, sinning friends. Our hero, Eddie (Mark Wahlberg–but this sounds all wrong, you still want to call him Marky Mark), is recruited into the world of porn in 1977, when he is 17. This happens because Eddie still lives at home with his awful parents; a wimpy father and a drunken mother, who runs around the house calling him stupid. He dreams vaguely of stardom, but for the time being works as a dishwasher in a nightclub. One night, a customer, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who happens to be a porn director, spots talent beneath Eddie’s bulging zipper. Back in the kitchen, Jack asks him to pull out his love gun. His suspicions are confirmed, and he tells Eddie to call him about getting into the business. We know we should be horrified, but we’re not. We’ve seen Eddie’s mom. We know how badly he needs a pat on the back. Against our better instincts, we think, “Go with this nice older man.”

The writer and director of Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson, waits awhile before playing his cards. The early scenes unfold with a patience that’s rare in movies these days. Like a kinder, gentler Robert Altman, Anderson takes time to introduce us to his underground drifters. Eddie goes for his audition, which turns out to be sex on Jack’s couch with a pretty but inappropriately cheerful runaway, Rollergirl (Heather Graham), so named because she lives her whole life on skates. Soon he’s shooting his debut movie under the name of Dirk Diggler. His first day on the set is a classic novice-in-Hollywood scene, except that the logistics of the shoot involve the cleansing of vaginas and polite whispered negotiations about where to ejaculate. The atmosphere is supportive, even wholesome, until Anderson finally stirs in some sicko stuff. A woman at a pool party ODs. Another woman, who is married, has sex with a stranger on the driveway while five strangers stand around watching. Slowly, Anderson cooks up a simultaneously lighthearted and sinister mood, as if this were a thriller set at summer camp.

He seems to be saying that there are two sides to every situation, and he’s helped out immensely by Wahlberg’s charismatic and subtle performance as Eddie-turned-Dirk. This is a character to whom it would be easy to condescend, but Wahlberg captures his nobility without skimping on his stupidity. When Eddie starts out, he thinks of sex as a calling, a gift he can give to people. Wahlberg is heartbreakingly natural as this ignorant naif; he cries out to be protected, like a puppy whose paws and ears are still disproportionately large. He’s vulnerable without the narcissism that has characterized so much vulnerable-male acting since Brando. I suppose it’s central to his appeal that his looks even shift from macho to feminine: At different points his tiny eyes and wide, thin-lipped mouth reminded me of the preppy convicted rapist Alex Kelly, and the French Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold.

Boogie Nights follows Dirk from 1977, when promiscuity was still socially acceptable and porn actors still dreamed of being recognized as legitimate artists, through 1984, by which time a combination of Reagan-era values and the rise of low-quality video has brought the industry crashing back to earth. It’s an ambitiously wide time span to take on, especially since the audience is likely to know it intimately, but for the most part, Anderson gets the tight shirts and the light-blue eye shadow and the fake wood paneling right. There are scratches on the veneer of authenticity, though. The soundtrack is less evocative than hyperactive: It runs the gamut from Eric Burdon & War’s “Spill The Wine” to Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl,” and the songs are usually heard several years later than people in real life would have listened to them. And Rollergirl should have thrown out her skates long before the movie ended in 1984. As I recall it, the entire country spent the early ‘80s in a seizure of revulsion over the late ‘70s, and the brief disco-era roller-skating fad placed a close second to Vietnam in terms of national shame. There’s an indiscriminateness to these lapses, an overconfidence. In the press kit, Anderson is quoted as saying, with amazing chutzpah, that he called on his “very specific memories of the way Los Angeles looked and felt” to re-create the period. The press kit also informs us that Anderson is 26, which means that what we’re seeing is based on the memories of a 6-year-old.

I n a way, this sloppy handling of the retro elements is refreshing. Anderson is young enough to be post-hip and post-ironic, if such terms are possible (can anything still be post-anything nonironically?). He’s got a sense of humor, but he’s more interested in character and motivation. Jack Horner’s entourage is explicitly presented as a dysfunctional makeshift family: Besides father Jack and sister Rollergirl, Dirk finds a mother figure in the porn actress Amber Waves (Julianne Moore, who does a good job of looking beautiful in one scene and puffy in the next), and a brother in the ugly, dumb, good-natured hack actor Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly). Dirk and this group slowly isolate themselves from the world. They shield and indulge each other; they snort coke together the way a regular family might grill hot dogs. And as a shrink might say, they lack boundaries. Amber is sad because she has a little son she’s no longer allowed to see. So she tells Dirk that she loves him as if he were her baby, and then she seduces him. Their strong feelings for each other are real, but they are also astonishing feats of denial, and Anderson acts as both sympathizer and judge.

The idea that wherever we are, we need a family, is interesting, up to a point. It was the main conceit in Anderson’s first film, Hard Eight, a neo-noir set in Reno, Nev., about an ex-mobster who takes on an imbecile protégé and loves him like a son. But like any idea, it gets simplistic when carried too far, and late in Boogie Nights it explodes into cheap melodrama. Without a good role model to guide him, Dirk snorts so much coke that his one real talent poops out. He slides downhill and gets beaten up–punished, essentially, for having gone too far with this fantasy family and having lost his grip on reality. And in an extremely sadistic overlapping scene, we see Rollergirl momentarily burst out of her passive bubble and brutalize one jerk for all the abuse men have subjected her to over the years. Without guidance, she’s lost all morals and turned into a cauldron of rage. These late scenes are over the top, as mean and reductive as editorials in a tabloid, and they nearly extinguish the moral subtlety of what’s gone before. One even hopes they are insincere, an attempt by Anderson to stay in step with the Zeitgeist of the ‘90s and the Promise Keepers. It would be a shame if someone this talented meant them in earnest.

“She’s a mother to all those who need love.”–Diggler (Wahlberg), Horner (Reynolds), and Waves (Moore) in Boogie Nights (41 seconds):
Sound03 - movie-boogie1.avi or {Sound04 -; download time, 2.25 minutes at 56K Sound01 - movie-boogie1.asf for sound only

“Chocolate love”–Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) and Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker) discuss style in Boogie Nights (37 seconds):
Sound06 - movie-boogie2.avi or Sound07 -; download time, 2.50 minutes at 56K S{{Sound02 - movie-boogie2.asf for sound only