Welcome to the movies, but not the kind that advertise in family newspapers. Movies without development deals, agents or talky scripts, where crews are small and lighting is haphazard because the director understands "there are shadows in life." Movies where the camera is always focused on "the Mr. Torpedo area, the fun zone." Welcome to the hard-core world of "Boogie Nights."
Written and directed by the formidably precocious 27-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson, "Boogie Nights" is a startling film, but not for the obvious reasons. Yes, its decision to focus on the pornography business in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s and '80s is nerviness itself, but more impressive is the film's sureness of touch, its ability to be empathetic, nonjudgmental and gently satirical, to understand what is going on beneath the surface of this raunchy "Nashville"-esque universe and to deftly relate it to our own.
If, as John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle" memorably insisted, "crime is a left-handed form of human endeavor," Anderson has been shrewd enough to see pornography in the same relation to show business in general and Hollywood in particular, to show it attracting the same kinds of dreamers desperate to make something halfway meaningful out of their lives.
But more than working a gleeful twist on traditional star-struck success stories, "Boogie Nights" understands that its characters, engaged though they may be in a quintessentially adult occupation, are in emotional terms no more than children looking for a family, for a home. With its surprising emphasis on the earnestness, the almost innocence of its people, "Boogie Nights" could practically be subtitled "Babes in Pornoland."
While it features extremely adult material, male and female nudity, simulated sex, violence and language strong enough to melt steel, "Boogie Nights' " dispassionate tone keeps it from being exploitative or even erotic. Unlike traditional pornography, its aim is to examine and fascinate, to amuse not arouse, but although its subject matter makes it a likely candidate for NC-17, its R rating makes a kind of sense.
Though the temptation must have been great, "Boogie Nights," expertly acted by a diverse and knowing cast that ranges from magician Ricky Jay to real-life adult film star Nina Hartley, also manages not to condescend to its characters. The film is bemused and entertained, as we are, by this pack of sexual extremists, and the eye it casts on them is both benevolent and wry. It's not the lower depths we're watching, but a parallel world, where everything is simultaneously different from our own, yet the same.
Masters of this universe, its king and queen, are Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). Dressed to impress in a red jumpsuit and gold chains, Jack is a primo director of "exotic films" and Amber, whose real name has vanished into the mists of time, is the very spacey top star who lives with him.
Jack didn't get where he is by being timid; he knows how to ferret out young talent like the teenage Rollergirl (Heather Graham) who never ever takes her skates off. And on this particular 1977 night in a Reseda disco, he's looking over a hunky busboy named Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). "I got a feeling," Jack says, casting a practiced eye on the practically blushing young man, "beneath those jeans something wonderful is waiting to get out."
Eddie, it turns out, is more than someone whose anatomy becomes his destiny. A high school dropout abused and belittled by his sour mother (Joanna Gleason), he is, lord help him, a kid who wants to follow his dream. "Everyone is blessed with one special thing in his life," Eddie tells his girlfriend, and the talents of a porno star just might be it for him.
As the boyish Eddie, who in an unexpected leap of imagination decides to rename himself Dirk Diggler, Wahlberg, a.k.a. underwear icon Marky Mark, gets his best film role to date and is indispensable to the success of "Boogie Nights." Earnestness itself, equal parts ordinary and charismatic, Wahlberg's Dirk is unstoppably naive and completely convincing in his "I Just Wanna Be Me" determination to succeed.
Dirk Diggler is not the only one to have dreams both understandable and preposterous. Jack Horner wishes wistfully for the day when he can make an adult film where the story is as powerful a lure as the sex. And Amber Waves, who sloughed off her son along with her name, doesn't want her porn stardom to interfere with her determination to act like a mother.
Everyone's dreams come together in the most audacious way when Dirk makes his porno debut having sex with Amber under Jack's direction. With its ability to examine unexamined lives and a willingness to understand how the unconventional often mimics the conventional, "Boogie Nights" displays this interlude both for what it is and what its characters badly hope it will become.
Covering seven years with a casual epic flair, writer-director Anderson also follows the fortunes of several more peripheral porno players. These include durable leading man Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), country-western-loving African American Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), the money man known only as the Colonel (Robert Ridgely), wistful homosexual Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the always worried Little Bill (William H. Macy), whose wife (Hartley) has a thing for public sex with other men.
The first part of "Boogie Nights," the introduction to this cockeyed world, is its most successful. Like any rags-to-riches story, it's engaging to watch Dirk Diggler (a character inspired in part by real-life L.A. porn star John Holmes, a.k.a. Johnny Wadd) make a series of James Bondish features that take him, ingenuous as ever, to the top of his profession.
When the '80s hit, a variety of factors, including drugs, cause the adult world and its participants to take a major hit, leading to a "wages of sin" section that is the film's weakest and most predictable. But "Boogie Nights," in yet another unexpected reversal, manages to pull out of this tailspin and right itself before its two hours and 35 minutes is done.
The film's wealth of ensemble performances are a major factor in this. Aside from Wahlberg, especially good are Reynolds, whose veteran been-there presence brings an essential stability to the father figure role, and Moore, that most adventurous of actresses, who provides Amber Waves with a sad and inescapable poignancy.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about "Boogie Nights" is the ease with which writer-director Anderson, whose debut film was the little-seen "Hard Eight," spins out this complex web. A true storyteller, able to easily mix and match moods in a playful and audacious manner, he is a filmmaker definitely worth watching, both now and in the future.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sex scenes with explicit dialogue, nudity, drug use, language and violence. Times guidelines: full frontal male nudity for Wahlberg, aided by a prosthetic device.
Mark Wahlberg: Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler
Burt Reynolds: Jack Horner
Julianne Moore: Amber Waves
Don Cheadle: Buck Swope
William H. Macy: Little Bill
Heather Graham: Rollergirl
John C. Reilly: Reed Rothchild
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Scotty J.
A Lawrence Gordon production in association with Ghoulardi Film Company, released by New Line Cinema. Director Paul Thomas Anderson. Producers Lloyd Levin, John Lyons, Paul Thomas Anderson, Joanne Sellar. Executive producer Lawrence Gordon. Screenplay Paul Thomas Anderson. Cinematographer Robert Elswit. Editor Dylan Tichenor. Costumes Mark Bridges. Music Michael Penn. Production design Bob Ziembicki. Art director Ted Berner. Set decorator Sandy Struth. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.