Boogie Nights is an adult film, but not in the sense of "adult entertainment," the polite euphemism for the porn industry where its characters make their living. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's freewheeling epic is a movie for adults: smart, funny, brave, devastating, ambiguous, sometimes all at the same time.
This complex story's fulcrum is ambitious naïf Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). In the high-energy opening sequence -- where the camera glides through a packed discotheque and captures the frenetic, garish glory -- Eddie is working as a busboy when he's spotted by eagle-eyed porn impresario Jack Horner (a fantastic Burt Reynolds -- really).
Jack suspects that "inside those jeans is something wonderful waiting to get out," and indeed, Eddie does have a "special thing" (measuring 13 inches) and knows how to use it. He easily morphs into porn mega-star Dirk Diggler, savoring all the rewards of his dubious fame.
As a filmmaker, Jack dreams of making porn films so good they'll keep the audience "in the theater after they've come." His comfortable, rambling house is the film's central location -- where Anderson stages several ecstatic party sequences -- and also serves as a safe haven for the motley group of damaged souls who make up his cast and crew.
Jack is the benevolent patriarch; Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Jack's coked-up muse and favorite star, is his oddly maternal companion; and Dirk is their favorite son.
Anderson shows this surrogate family's structure, but doesn't shy away from its creepier elements, such as Amber mothering Dirk by coaching him through their sex scenes. And the exact nature of the relationship between Amber and Jack (whose sex life seems to consist of professional voyeurism) is tantalizingly vague.
The guiding principle of Boogie Nights is constant forward motion. The characters are eager to shed their pasts as they look relentlessly forward to the bright future that surely awaits.
Reunited with many of the excellent actors and crew from his first feature, Hard Eight, and employing trashy pop songs like a postmodern Greek chorus, Anderson has made a searing film about an industry where sex has been stripped of eroticism and cynically seen as an exploitable skill.
What's most surprising about Boogie Nights -- a film that's more intelligent and less explicit than its subject matter -- is how compelling the lives of these shallow, marginal characters can be.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.