Boogie Nights is one of those films, in the vein of Blow, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Requiem for a Dream, that stares unflinchingly at something ugly and asks us to follow along without blinking. When it's the porn industry, it's hard not to blink.
It's the swinging 70s, and porn is on the rise. Eddie Adams AKA Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), is a fresh-faced lad with a particular gift. That gift happens to be in his pants. His reputation is well known, but it's only when porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) discovers him that Dirk's career takes off. And thus begins a bizarre journey into the seedier side of filmmaking, complete with diva-level antics, arguments about video technology, and lots of sex and drugs.
What's alternately curious and interesting about the film is that this is a traditional rag to riches story, only it happens to involve porn. Dirk is portrayed as having a natural talent, a trait every character observes with deadly seriousness. His talent, and the dedication to his "art," elevates the entire porn industry itself, from merely badly filmed shaky-cam sex films to dramas with plot and character development. Well, what passes for character development in porn, anyway.
There's Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), a porn queen barred from seeing her own children and subsequently mother to everybody. Reed Rothschild (John C. Reilly) is Dirk's right-hand man and frequent co-star. Rollergirl (Heather Graham in her best acting role yet), does it with her roller skates on. All the time. Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) is a black porn star that wants to live the American dream of owning his own business. And finally, we have Little Bill (William H. Macy), assistant director to Horner and married to a utterly hedonistic woman who does it with everyone, everywhere, at any time.
By the time we get to the 80s, several characters are dead, video is king, and Dirk is too hopped up on drugs to notice that it's affecting his performance. A falling out with Horner leads Dirk to strike out on his own, trying to be anything but a porn star. Unfortunately, Dirk's only good at one thing. And it takes him most of the movie to figure out what that is.
Horner, Waves, and Dirk creates their own twisted, happy family. Incapable of living in society separately due to the stigma of what they do, they form a kinship that only they can share. And even they have their own bonds and boundaries; to their work, to themselves, to each other. Those that cannot define who they are end up dead or in prison, or worse.
In the end, Boogie Nights is about making good with what you've got. And yes that means even porn stars sometimes have to face facts: sometimes you're best talent is having sex on camera. The question becomes what a 17-year-old kid turned porn star is supposed to do about it. Boogie Nights answers it in the final scene, when the true star of the film is unzipped to stare us in the face.