Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights.Boogie Nights puts a human face on the porn industry, and that's its downfall

points on 10-point scale Having taken a job months ago that precludes my attending press screenings of new movies, I decided on its release that I would see Boogie Nights when it came round to the bargain theaters. I perceived from its advance publicity that it would likely be one of those films that cuts out a new path for itself, like The Graduate or Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris, Saturday Night Fever, or its Dutch imitation, Spetters. Boogie Nights treats the then-new pornographic film industry of the 1970’s and humanizes its players.

If anything epitomizes the tenor of that decade and the new path modern culture went down at that time, it is the porn industry and its increasing claims to social legitimacy. I editorialized when the most famous porn star of the era, John Holmes, died of AIDS that if there were to be a distant-future equivalent of Shakespeare writing about our times, he might choose Holmes, whose obituaries noted he had been intimate with at least 10,000 women, and failed U.S. President Richard Nixon as the times' most representative tragic icons.

Like The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, Boogie Nights is a movie built around adultery, though the word is never used and would be considered embarrassingly out of place if it were. Like Saturday Night Fever its protagonist is a handsome young stud on the make, with an ambition to do and be "good," wholly on his own terms, which of course contradicts the word’s meaning. But unlike all those previous movies, Boogie Nights is sorely lacking in moral center. Its happy-ending message could be summarized (among other things) as "pornography can be a good and fun way to make a living if you can just keep away from substance addiction."

Starring former underwear model and rap singer Marky Mark Wahlberg as a 17-year-old precocious in sexual experience but fetchingly innocent in other ways, Boogie Nights resembles Saturday Night Fever not only because Wahlberg reprises John Travolta’s narcissistic scene in his underwear in front of his mirror, but for its setting in the sexually anarchistic disco era.

To be sure, Boogie Nights admits that the porn lifestyle exacts its prices: a starlet is dropped off at the nearest emergency room early in the tale, dead of an overdose. The female lead, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), loses all claims to her young son because her ex-husband accuses her, accurately, of living as a porn slut and coke addict. The central story could be described as the descent into hell of Wahlberg’s character, Eddie Adams, renamed Dirk Diggler when he becomes the hottest porn star since Holmes. The sugar daddy who bankrolls the porn movies that Diggler stars in is eventually destroyed by his dabbling, on the side, in child pornography. The assistant director, played by William H. Macy (from Fargo and TV’s ER) murders his wife and her last sex partner and then commits suicide when she embarrasses him by bedding another man once too often.

But if the film has a hero and redeemer figure, it is Burt Reynolds’ character, Jack Horner, director of the porn movies who lives in a lavish San Fernando Valley home where life is a constant orgiastic party. Though lives are self-destructing all around him, Horner is unfazed by the chaos. He is able to stay the course while enjoying the sleaze like most males in our culture try to do for at least part of their lives. When Dirk hits bottom and returns the prodigal son, begging forgiveness and acceptance of Horner after his own parents have shut him out, Jack waits only long enough to see if his once-golden boy’s eyes are sincere before embracing him, taking him back, and starting the party again if on a more subdued, Reagan-eighties level than at the former frenzy of the ’seventies.

This shortcoming is doubly disappointing, considering that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent previous film was the intricately plotted and highly moralistic Hard Eight, about a murderer trying to make private restitution to the son of his victim. Though the script repeatedly suggests that pornography is ultimately dehumanizing, the happy-ending twist that Anderson gives this story undercuts that point, perhaps mainly so he can have a place to tag on the "full monty" surprise that might have been expected to draw audiences.

I wanted to put this on the record for those who have seen Boogie Nights and wanted to understand it from a different perspective. But if you haven’t seen it, I'm not recommending doing so. For another treatment of the same subject but much more redemptively, rent Hardcore with George C. Scott as a Christian father descending into hell to save his prodigal daughter. It is even more shockingly honest, on all counts, than Boogie Nights.


1998 Jon Kennedy