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Review: "Boogie Nights"

Blast Boston Bureau

Unless you live in a biodome, you've probably already heard at least one of two things about the film "Boogie Nights":

1) Gushing raves from critics in all corners.

2) Much rumor and innuendo about Mark Wahlberg's penis.

Let's the set the record straight on both counts.

First: yes, the Artist Formerly Known as Marky Mark flashes the goods, and no, it's not really his. Kudos to the special effects department, however; Wahlberg's prosthetic schlong is almost more lifelike than, say, Harvey Keitel's real one.

Second: yes, "Boogie Nights" is a very good film, but it ain't all that. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is yet another in the growing ranks of savvy young filmmakers who, consciously or no, have learned that the best way to induce Pavlovian drooling in film critics is to rip off, lampoon, and one-up earlier, better films. So unless you're a real connoisseur of Scorsese-esque single-take tracking shots, Altman-esque cinema verite half-intelligible conversations, or Tarantino-esque ironic soundtrack juxtapositions (the suitably inappropriate accompaniment to the mayhem here comes courtesy of Nena, whose "99 Luftballoons" was, unfortunately for Anderson, already used to similar and better effect by John Cusack in "Grosse Pointe Blank" earlier this year), you're likely to miss a great deal of what the critics have been getting so hot and bothered about.

So what is there for the rest of us to like about "Boogie Nights"?

Well, there's the '70's nostalgia thing. But even that has been somewhat overhyped; the film's timeline actually moves from 1977 to 1984, so leisurewear fans will have to get their fix in the first ninety minutes. It's worth noting, however, that "Boogie Nights" is the first in the recent wave of retro flicks to successfully portray the early '80's as an alien culture on par with the worst of the Disco Era. The polo shirts, relaxed perms, and Night Ranger power ballads of the film's tail end are every bit as squirm- inducing as the feathered hair and platform shoes of the first half.

There's also the titillation factor: "Boogie Nights" is, after all, a "respectable" film about the porn industry, a chance for all of us who are too embarrassed to venture into that back room at the video store to get our rocks off at the arthouse cinema. Here again, however, T&A-seekers will likely be disappointed. "Boogie Nights" makes a very compelling case for what many an old fuddy- duddy among us has long maintained--namely, that porno flicks aren't all that sexy. Sex in the film is mainly used for comic effect, as with a running gag that involves professional sad-sack William H. Macy (here playing a mustachioed sad-sack called Little Bill) continually discovering his wife in flagrante delicto with younger, studlier men. The only full seduction-to-orgasm sex scene in the entire film happens during the shooting of young stallion Dirk Diggler's (Wahlberg, in an elegantly coiffed Greg Brady wig) first feature, and, with the huddled film crew and deliberately terrible acting, it's a strangely bloodless set piece ("We didn't get the cum shot!"). Indie film sex-fiends will just have to wait for "Kama Sutra" to come out on video.

What saves "Boogie Nights"--and despite its many excesses and its dubious attempt to reinvent the late '70's as an age of innocence, it mostly works--is Anderson's flair for characterization and storytelling. It also doesn't hurt that he's got an outstanding, fearless ensemble cast. Even when they're trapped in cinematic cliches, these actors and the characters Anderson has given them are vivid and wholly original.

Everyone's going to talk about Wahlberg, who dares to parade around in tight underwear, sing badly, get down, and generally make fun of his own image even as he's totally inhabiting the confused, well- intentioned Dirk. Everyone's also going to talk about Burt Reynolds, who does indeed redeem himself from every "Cannonball Run" movie in one fell swoop with his utterly convincing XXX impresario Jack Horner. But Wahlberg and Reynolds are just two drops of a whole bucket full of great performances. There's literally too many of them to mention in a single review, but here's a few highlights: Julianne Moore, an unlikely choice to play Horner's superstar vixen Amber Waves, pulls off the role with a compelling mix of fragility and earthiness. Heather Graham, as Rollergirl, looks and acts the part of free-love nymphet and then gradually, shockingly peels away the layers to a bitter, traumatized core. Don Cheadle takes Buck, Anderson's closest approach to stock character shtick, and invests his fashion-victim absurdity with genuine soul-searching pathos. And veteran character actor Robert Ridgely, who died soon after completing this film, pulls off the seemingly impossible, making us feel sympathy for a fat-cat pedophile named the Colonel.

So "Boogie Nights" is definitely worth seeing, if not for the reasons you might expect. If you go, just be sure to take some dramamine in preparation for all those wild camera swings and tracking shots. And guys, you might want to avoid the supersize beverages at the concession stand; after you see Wahlberg whip out his massive prothesis, you're likely to contract a major case of the pee-shies in the men's room.