Boogie Nights (review)

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The Naked Truth

1977. Los Angeles. There are eight million stories in the, um, naked city, and this is one of them. Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg, who here looks disturbingly like Christopher Daniel Barnes as Greg Brady), 17 years old, is a nice, honest kid with a really big, ahem, secret. Busing tables at a club, he’s approached one night by big-time pornographer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who’s heard about Eddie’s moonlighting — it seems, for a small fee, Eddie will, er, let the cat out of the bag. Soon enough, Eddie has rechristened himself Dirk Diggler and is Jack’s hot new star.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights is unsentimental, unsympathetic, and decidedly unsexy. Its dehumanized characters revel in hard drugs, impersonal sex, and rampant consumerism. And yet these unpleasant characters never fail to intrigue. Jack actually thinks he’s an artist and is delighted with himself when a new series of movies starring Dirk Diggler begins to approach cheesiness as opposed to mere badness. Eddie/Dirk is a genuinely sweet kid who is finds a maternal figure in one of Jack’s other regular players, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), and feels betrayed when he thinks he’s been displaced in her affections by a new, younger star. Porn princess Rollergirl (Heather Graham) refuses to ever take her skates off — ever.
It’s when Boogie Nights graduates to the 80s (the era of skinny headbands and designer jeans) that it started to lose me, just a bit. Eddie/Dirk falls out with Jack and gets involved in some nastiness with a druglord. Another character looking to leave the porn industry and start his own business is thwarted at every turn — then, presented with an almost unbelievable opportunity to grab some money for his business, he finally resorts to dishonesty. I understand what Anderson is trying to show — that none of these folks are likely to meet with a good end — but the last hour or so of the film drags on and on, violently and eventually pointlessly.

It is fun, though, to see all these good actors — particularly Wahlberg and Moore — dumbing themselves down in order to act as badly as their characters must in their hilariously awful porn flicks. Wahlberg even atrociously belts out a song in one scene and manages to make you forget that he was once the singer Marky Mark.

The best thing — and the most annoying thing — about Boogie Nights is that finally, here is a movie about a penis that admits it’s about a penis instead of disguising it as a car or a gun. And yet, while the women characters are frequently and casually fully nude, the men never are — the movie’s, er, mounting suspense comes from making us wonder when we are going to get a gander at this thing that’s making every other characters’ eyes go wide. And when Eddie/Dirk, quite pointedly fully dressed, finally unzips for us, we all know it’s fake, a prosthetic, while naturally the women are actually revealing their own bodies.

I guess I should be surprised that an R-rated movie goes the full monty. Hollywood’s unconscious attitude is usually that men need to be protected from prying female eyes, but not the other way around. You can tell how large a woman’s breasts are while she’s dressed, obviously, so what difference does it make if she’s naked? Men, on the other hand, can keep everything under wraps, so why make them vulnerable and force them to reveal anything, ever?

Is Boogie Nights offering a pithy commentary on how men’s and women’s bodies are offered for view on the big screen by making Eddie/Dirk’s unusual revelation the, um, climax of the film? It’s not the kind of thing audiences are used to expecting or hoping for in movies (and frankly, if I see one more full-frontal Harvey Keitel, I’ll scream), while it is practically a given in most films that some chick will remove her blouse.

Or is Boogie Nights just another symptom of that attitude that shields poor, delicate, wittle boys from us big, nasty women? Maybe it’s the use of the word “wittle” that they’re all afraid of…

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