Boogie Nights

(Reviewed in 2002.)

“Boogie Nights” has a lot of sex in it, which does not surprise me, given the film’s porn-industry subject matter. What is refreshing is that it does not dwell on the sex in a lurid manner, but neither is it judgmental toward porn makers.

This objective point of view is borne out in director P.T. Anderson’s use of long tracking shots. The first scene, in which most of the major characters are introduced, is nearly three minutes of one shot, sweeping through a Los Angeles intersection and into the nightclub where future porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) is a busboy, and where current porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) hangs out. A subsequent, similar shot takes us through one of Jack’s backyard parties, making us a fly on a very interesting wall.

Dirk’s first on-camera sex scene (with Amber Waves, played by Julianne Moore), while not done in one shot, nevertheless shows us the whole process from beginning to end with very little artistic intrusion. Most of it is seen through the eyes of Jack Horner’s cameraman, with no added music or commentary.

Which is why I say “Boogie Nights” avoids lewdness. The porn industry is never made to appear particularly glamorous. The sex scenes are not very erotic or sexy, either. They’re perfunctory, almost business-like.

It is also to the film’s credit, though, that the porn industry is not made into a monstrous villain that corrupts our youth. I believe it is guilty of those things, but Anderson’s point is more observational: Here’s what it was like in the ’70s and ’80s; make of it what you will.

The one character who objects to the rampant sexuality, insofar as it means his wife has to keep doin’ it with strangers, is not portrayed even as a happy man, much less a morally correct one. Another character who no doubt would object — Dirk’s mother — disappears from the film as soon as Dirk starts working for Jack. This movie has no use for characters who are going to object to pornography on purely moral grounds, because this movie does not particularly care about the rightness or wrongness of it.

Compare this to 2000’s “Quills,” about the Marquis de Sade. This film couldn’t manage to be about a tawdry, filthy character without being tawdry and filthy itself. Though “Boogie Nights” is far from demure, it at least succeeds at not rolling in the raunchiness any more than necessary.

Dirk Diggler, nee Eddie Adams, is an aimless 17-year-old blessed with a peculiar gift in the way of his anatomy. It is this fact that makes Jack Horner interested in putting him in show business, and Eddie is only too willing.

Wahlberg’s performance is a classic one, playing Eddie (who adopts Dirk Diggler as his porn name, though it has nothing to do with his mother’s maiden name or the street he grew up on) as a quiet kid with a strongly calculating mind. He’s not just an innocent who gets dragged into pornography. It’s more or less what he always wanted, and he knows he’ll be good at it. No naive youngster, this Mr. Adams.

The cast of characters is an interesting, mildly sad group. Their ultimate destinations are shown to us, with hints at what future pleasures or troubles await them. Fine acting all around from Reynolds, Moore, Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heather Graham, William H. Macy and especially John C. Reilly buoy the already-stellar screenplay.

In a way, this film is not much different from the “a star is born” genre of movies where a country boy heads for Hollywood and becomes a legend. The chief difference is that this country boy grew up near Hollywood, and he had his sights set on the prize before he ever got there.

A- (2 hrs., 36 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, sexuality, nudity, some violence.)