Boogie Nights, also included in the New York Film Festival, is another fireball in a time capsule. A tumultuous two and a half-hour evocation of sex in the ’70s, this chunk of movie dynamite is detonated by Mark Wahlberg, the rapper formerly known as Marky Mark, who grabs a breakout role and runs with it. What sounds like a tacky peek into the inner workings of the porn industry in the late ’70s, when President Carter admitted to having lust in his heart, is like The Ice Storm, a film about family. Just don’t think Disney, since the teen busboy hero, Eddie Adams (Wahlberg), who is estranged from his parents, rises to X-rated fame on the size of his dick (Wahlberg wears a prosthetic device) and his apt new name, Dirk Diggler.
The mother figure whom Eddie finds in porn queen Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) makes her living by going down on his mammoth member, and the father figure, porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), films the transaction. The extended family includes fellow studs Reed (John C. Reilly) and Buck (Don Cheadle); Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who does everything, even sex, on skates; and a technical crew headed by Little Bill, played with deadpan dazzle by Fargo’s William H. Macy.
The Brady Bunch they ain’t. But get one thing straight about the constantly surprising Boogie Nights: This R-rated movie is outrageous; it is not obscene. The ’70s re-creation – right down to the leisure suits and disco moves – is meant to show the illusion of glamour and the lies that these alleged ’70s swingers tell themselves to buy into the fantasy.
Eddie believes that fame in smut will vindicate him to the parents who wrote him off. Moving from naive kid to cynical burnout, Wahlberg gives a blazing performance. Moore pierces the heart as Amber, who buries her agony – she’s lost custody of her son – in cocaine and parental role-playing sessions with Eddie and Rollergirl. And Reynolds, blending crack comic timing with unexpected sincerity, hits a career high as the director who thinks he can turn porn into art and takes on the task with the loony ardor of a hard core Ed Wood.
These are characters trying to forge a family out of whatever crude materials may be available. Sex is mostly confined to the cameras – why waste a good come shot? It’s the personal bonds these fringe dwellers form that count, until Eddie, fueled by drugs and arrogance, spirals out of control. Lashing out at Jack, who tries to give him a sense of belonging, however mired in smut, Eddie shouts, “You’re not the king of me.” Even when Boogie Nights flies off course as it tracks its bizarrely idealistic characters into the ’80s – when money replaced sex as the aphrodisiac, and crass video replaced film as the medium for porn – you can sense the passionate commitment at the core of this hilarious and harrowing spectacle. For this, credit Paul Thomas Anderson, 27, the film’s writer and director, who strives to give his second film, after the small-scale Hard Eight, the epic sweep of a Nashville or a GoodFellas. Anderson scores a personal triumph by finding glints of rude life in the ashes that remained after Watergate. For all the unbridled sex, what is significant, timely and, finally, hopeful about Boogie Nights is the way Anderson proves that a movie can be mercilessly honest and mercifully humane at the same time.