Back in 1977, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) was seventeen years old, hadn't finished high school, and was working two jobs, one at a car wash and the other at a nightclub serving drinks. But word had gotten around about his remarkable manhood, which he would earn extra cash with by charging people to see it or for a bit more money watch him masturbate, and as one of the nightclub regulars was pornographic movie producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), it was not long before Eddie was being offered a proposition. He could continue being a nobody, or he could enter the adult film industry - and stardom.
Although Paul Thomas Anderson had made a film prior to this, he was not happy about the way it turned out and it was not a hit. However, he truly arrived when Boogie Nights was released and impressed both the critical community and moviegoers alike, in spite of its length and a subject matter which many found unsavoury. Yet while the characters get up to some sordid behaviour, you could tell that Anderson was not judging them and never allowed their essential humanity to drift out of sight, even as their chosen profession begins to slide their lives into degradation and even endangers their existences. In its own way, it was a weird tale of camaraderie in unlikely circumstances.
However, there may have been a measure of goodwill towards these people, and Anderson fully admitted feeling nostalgic for what he saw as a golden age of porn, but somehow we never get too close to them - or indeed all that close at all. It's as if the film keeps them at arm's length, almost objectifying them emotionally in the same way that porn actors would be objectified sexually by their consumers, with the result that you're quite often in the position of looking down on them and their increasingly pathetic attempts to make a go of things. Some of the characters are more intelligent than others, but they all end up acting foolishly eventually, and the inference is that if they had not chosen this vocation then they might not have had so many options closed off to them.
Or so many dubious options opened up to them, for that matter. There was a great, one of a kind cast who brought this to the screen. Backing up Mark Wahlberg and his innocent gradually corrupted performance was a group of actors who had followings of their own of one kind or another, from Julianne Moore as the "mother" of the group both in her own mind and in those around her to John C. Reilly as a nice but dim star Reed Rothchild in Horner's repertory company who gets a prime dialogue exchange with Eddie when they're introduced, one of many pitch perfect character moments in the film. There's also Don Cheadle as the nice guy country music hi-fi enthusiast/porn star, Heather Graham as the actress who never takes off her rollerboots, and William H. Macy whose porn participant wife makes him snap.
That snapping scene is significant because it occurs when the seventies turn to the eighties, and the glory days of adult films turn to the cheap and nasty days of video. Now, it could be that Anderson was fooling himself into thinking that the video era was far more sleazy and degrading than the film era before it, but it's true that a fair few porn stars of that period found themselves in reduced situations, with John Holmes the most obvious casualty, the most notable influence on the story of Eddie Adams who takes the stage name Dirk Diggler. If this is the whole rags to riches and back again tale that any number of showbiz movies have charted, then Boogie Nights remains fresh through a management of standout individual scenes - Philip Seymour Hoffman's gay assistant and his bungled seduction of Eddie, Cheadle finding himself in a life-threatening hold-up, the whole scam at Alfred Molina's drug dealer's place among them - and a sense that you want these characters to overcome their setbacks and flaws. Yet there's still something oddly remote about its sundrenched melodrama. Music by Michael Penn along with a load of well-chosen oldies.