"This isn't sex--this is pornography!" screams the enraged director when his new cinematographer starts to get too artistic for his own good. As absurd as it sounds, this piece of dialogue from The Fluffer--a cautionary tale of romantic obsession in the adult-video industry--is absolutely correct: The distance between the on-screen illusions and off-screen lives of the stars in Hollywood is even greater in porno's funhouse-mirror reflection. If you think you've been down these mean San Fernando Valley streets before in Boogie Nights, think again; as written and directed by Richard Glatzer (creator of the moving comedy-drama Grief) and Wash West (writer-director of the...uh, well, I don't think moving is quite the term...porn film The Devil Is a Bottom), The Fluffer will have none of Paul Thomas Anderson's starry-eyed romanticism, though its subject remains romance.
Boogie Nights proffered a comforting vision of '70s-era porn as a kind of 16mm Eden before the fall that came with the birth of home video. Porn performers and purveyors were portrayed as a dysfunctional but loving family, undone by drugs, jealousy and overweening ambition--a sentimental illusion that any number of film critics who should know better claimed to find honest. The Fluffer has none of this. There's no camaraderie before or behind the cameras here. People relate to one another in the manner of day laborers at an aluminum-siding factory. And just as with any factory, running on schedule is all-important, and if you don't do your job, you're out the door.
As for the job itself, The Fluffer shows a porno shoot to be several notches lower than automobile detailing on the erotic excitement scale. Still, this film won't ruin pornography for you. The Fluffer reveals that fantasy still has the power to overwhelm fact even at its most debased level; it wonders, where does erotic fantasy end and cold, hard reality begin? This is the problem for the film's hero, Sean McGinnis (Michael Cunio), an aspiring filmmaker who finds his aspirations run aground by his obsession with Johnny Rebel (Scott Gurney), super-butch gay porn star. The better to get near his video beloved, Sean gets a job working as a cinematographer at Men of Janus films (which perpetually finds the "J" erased from its front door).
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Sean not only gets to meet Mikey (Johnny Rebel's real name) but finds himself being assigned the duty of fluffing him--that is, providing the necessary oral stimulation to get the performer to perform. On one level, it's a dream come true: Sean hasn't merely befriended Johnny but made love to him. Sort of. Just as fluffing isn't really making love, shooting pornography isn't really having sex. And Mikey isn't really gay. Not really. Glatzer and West take us through the looking glass into the land of "gay for pay"--a world in which an otherwise heterosexual male can become a gay sex star and still be "straight." Sort of.
Mikey's sexual comminglings with other men proceed solely from a script; in real life, he has a girlfriend, Julie (Roxanne Day), who has her own professional name, Babylon, which she uses in her job as stripper and lap dancer. And though the two never meet, Julie and Sean both must deal with Mikey's sullen, self-absorbed indifference: Just as Sean harbors the hope that Mikey will regard him as something more than an appliance, Julie believes her (quite unexpected) pregnancy will get her boyfriend to shape up. But Mikey is far too wasted on drugs to deal with her, Sean or even his porn-star duties. And as his situation goes from bad to worse, the resourceful Julie pulls away--and pulls her life together. Sean, by contrast, pulls himself closer to Mikey, nearly bringing about his own ruin in the process.
There's the chance Mikey may have murdered the owner of the company in a drug-induced rage; we wonder if he's really a killer. Sean would like to believe not--just as he'd like to believe that somewhere deep down, Mikey is capable of caring for him. Is Sean, already degraded by his masochistic obsession with Mikey, driving himself even further into the ground? Or has he, like Julie, found a way to find and redeem himself by loving someone so unlovable? Perhaps Lorenz Hart put it best: "Unrequited love's a bore/And I've got it pretty bad/But for someone you adore/It's a pleasure to be sad."
Glatzer and West have cannily assembled a cast of newcomer leads and name performers, including Debbie Harry (as Julie's sympathetic club-owner boss), Taylor Negron (as a seen-it-all cinematographer), Robert Walden (as a former porn star, Chad Cox, turned sales manager) and Richard Riehle (as a hard-as-nails director); it also contains cameos by some of the porn glitterati, among them Cole Tucker, Chris Green, Karen Dior and the Michael Curtiz of gay video, Chi-Chi LaRue. And in the end, The Fluffer is a film for the chastened romantic in us all--gay, straight or "for pay."