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A Star Is Porn

Here's a wonder. The dirty little pleasures of Boogie Nights, which chronicles the follies and the fondest dreams of a group of L.A. porn stars in the late Seventies and early Eighties, have almost nothing to do with sex or debauchery. Instead, this sly and hugely entertaining flashback to the cokeheads-and-disco era turns out to be one of the smartest and funniest movies to date about the problems of a screwed-up family. Its producer, writer, director and (for all we know) key grip is a 26-year-old named Paul Thomas Anderson, and it's clear he feels no need to transform his smut-peddlers into champions of the First Amendment, as The People Vs. Larry Flynt tried to do, or to claim that their brains outweigh their sex organs, which they most certainly do not.

No, what Anderson is after here is a group portrait of striving among the starstruck, the disenfranchised and the dumb, salted with wicked satire and unexpected sweetness. For every pound of flesh the audience glimpses, there are three pounds of keen observation by a young filmmaker who seems to know exactly what he's doing. Anderson's first feature was Hard Eight, a self-conscious slice of life set in the Reno casinos. The astonishingly better Boogie Nights might, if life still feels like imitating art, make him a star.

The casting is a dream. There could scarcely be anyone more appropriate than that old self-mocking warhorse Burt Reynolds to play the improvised porn family's seedy patriarch, Jack Horner. Jack directs movies of a sort in his ill-lit basement, without much need for a wardrobe department, but he seriously believes he will one day turn copulation into high art. Reynolds's capacity for the throwaway line--and the throwaway thought--is the perfect expression of a man who wants to make a sex flick that is "true and right and dramatic" but never loses sight of reality. "You need the big dicks, the big tits," he adds.

The second great choice is Mark Wahlberg as Eddie Adams, Jack Horner's latest "discovery." A busboy who takes the bus to work, Eddie's headed nowhere until the night in 1977 when Jack spots that bulge in his jeans. As fast as you can say Lana Turner, this hopeless waif is transformed into Dirk Diggler, the hot new stud of porn, complete with a red Corvette, a closetful of skintight Qiana and an ego as big as his only negotiable asset. Hmmm. Has anyone forgotten that just as Dirk was once Eddie, Mark Wahlberg was once Marky Mark?

Some other members of this big, unruly family, holed up in Jack Horner's badly decorated house, are the sweet and ditzy Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a high-school dropout who never takes her skates off, not even when the cameras roll; the veteran performer Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), who plays mother to the new kids; and Devil in a Blue Dress's Don Cheadle as Buck Swope, who tries to find himself through a series of fashion statements but really wants nothing more than his own stereo store. The movie's fly-by-night financiers, hangers-on and wannabes are equally vivid, and when Anderson's camera meanders around one of Jack's parties, giving us a glimpse and a soundbite of everyone, you can't help thinking of the wise-ass character introductions in Goodfellas. In fact, Boogie Nights does for the working stiffs of porn what Scorsese did for the buck privates of the mob--it shows their awful warts and their touching quest for dignity.

The movie's central irony is that the makers of "adult entertainment" are really overgrown children--unschooled, inarticulate, their dreams of fame plucked right out of storybooks. The movie's great joke (and you needn't look very far below the surface to find it) is that the porn trade looks an awful lot like mainstream Hollywood unclothed: The delusions, excesses and power trips that afflict Dirk, Jack and Amber are barely distinguishable from the ones at work up Laurel Canyon or in the boardroom at Disney. My favorite scene in Boogie Nights unfolds at the pornmongers' low-rent annual awards dinner, where Dirk's gold statuette is the shape of a well-endowed woman, but the false gaiety and self-congratulatory air are straight out of Oscar night. Anderson may be exploring the grimy outskirts of the entertainment industry, but his thinly veiled satire of the stars and moguls downtown proves as sharp and funny as anything Robert Altman worked into The Player.

Meanwhile, Jack and the ad hoc Horner family struggle to hold things together as they're buffeted by time and tide. Around 1980, video cameras revolutionize the skin game (just as the talkies once overwhelmed silence), the coke and crank scene spins out of control, and Dirk, whacked out of his skull, begins to have the usual artistic disputes with his director. When the kid decides his talent really lies in singing, the taping of the godawful demo is just about the limit of speed-freak self-delusion. Through all of this, Wahlberg does bravura A Star Is Born turns--the wounded naif rising fast, souring at the top, falling faster--while Anderson bathes the whole intrigue in equal doses of wild comedy and lunatic terror.

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