It's 1977, the height of the disco era, and the royalty we glimpse are players from the porno-film world. Anderson takes a while to let us discover this. He wants us to feel the thump and swoon inside the disco the way Scorsese wanted us to feel the intoxication in the early strip bar scene in Mean Streets. Scorsese's camera was sashaying through hellfire; the prospect of damnation gave his glide a sensual rock and roll.
Anderson doesn't draw on the same Catholic tensions as Scorsese, but this two-and-a-half-hour porno-world epic finally offers up its own Biblical-style retribution and forgiveness. It's a deeply divided film--hugely ambitious and uneven, with sequences that seem to point to a new, comically flagrant movie sexuality and others that drag one into the funky muddle of the dreariest dopehead downers from the '70s.
In its most basic outline, Boogie Nights is a rags-to- riches-to-rags saga--Horatio Alger as studmuffin gone bad. Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) starts out washing dishes in that Valley disco and ends up as Dirk Diggler, porno's premier male star. His mentor is producer-director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who first approaches Eddie in the dishroom by saying, "I got a feeling underneath those jeans is something wonderful waiting to come out." This may sound like a proposition, but it's strictly business. Later, for a look-see, Eddie unzips himself for the Colonel (Robert Ridgely), Jack's financier. In the porno world sex--and sex organs--are a commodity.
But sex is also sex, if you care to think about it that way. One of the those who does is Jack's associate Little Bill (William H. Macy), who continually walks in on his wife (real-life porno star Nina Hartley) being drilled by a succession of guys. What's funny, and odd, about Little Bill is that, unlike everybody else in his community, he actually feels the sting of sex--jealousy, rage, betrayal. There's a disconnect between the life he leads and the life he films.
For Eddie, his sexual equipment is his gift, his "blessing." A high-school dropout who lives with his milquetoast father and shrewish mother (Joanna Gleason) until he escapes into the porno-film world, Eddie has an unstinting innocence. Even his ambition is innocent; he says he wants to be a "big, bright, shining star." He buys a fancy home and then stocks it with ceiling mirrors and leopard-print bedspreads. He can't tell real silver from fake. And yet we're meant to connect with his need to "find" himself by becoming a star. For Anderson, the indignity of working in the porno industry is not really an indignity at all. Porno, after all, is a business like any other, and, unlike most businesses, at least its corruptions are up front. What's important is that for its players the porno world provides a theater for self-fulfillment.
The misfits and the marginalized in Boogie Nights look after each other by creating their own family. The earth mother in this galaxy is Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), the amber-haired porno star who lives with Jack in his baronial Valley spread and tends his flock, which also includes Buck (Don Cheadle), who is forever remaking his "image," and Maurice (Luis Guzman), who manages the disco and wants to get into porno acting.
Amber is locked in a wearying custody battle with her ex- husband (John Doe) over her son. She also is heavily into cocaine and, acting almost as a caregiver, introduces Eddie to coke. (It's what sends him into a downward spiral in the '80s.) Earlier, she appears with Eddie in his first on-camera sex scene, and she's a caregiver there, too. (It's a kick in this scene watching a great actress play a bad actress.) Amber ministers motherly advice to Eddie as they get it on.
What does Jack think when he watches them together? Anderson charges the moment with so many crosscurrents that you don't know whether to laugh or applaud or avert your eyes. On some level, Jack must feel outraged--after all, his partner is being damn well serviced by his protege right before his eyes. But Jack has a higher calling. He wants his films to be "right and true." He wants the raincoat brigadiers to remain in the theaters for his movies until the end, not just until they've gotten off. For Jack, Eddie isn't just a gold mine; he's an artist--an artist of sex. The hush he confers on Eddie and Amber is the awe of one artist for another. Art transcends the personal.