Film: Family values, nostalgia, fun - that's porn for you

A film about the American pornography industry is not the first place you'd look to find a celebration of conformity and family life, but it's there at the heart of Boogie Nights, the second feature from the 26-year-old writer/ director Paul Thomas Anderson. The porn industry has traditionally been depicted as a place of ugliness and corruption, in films such as Inserts and Hardcore, but Anderson gives it a homeliness that owes much to nostalgia for a time before Aids (the story unfolds in Los Angeles between 1977 and 1984). The characters in Boogie Nights, just like the Addams Family or the junky clan of Drugstore Cowboy, have their own equivalent of the weekend barbecue - though admittedly, few families would consider ejaculation a suitable subject for the tea table.

The family at the centre of Boogie Nights are not blood relatives, though bodily fluids do figure prominently in their relationships. Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is the daddy, a porno director who dreams of making something "true and right and dramatic"; Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) is his regular star, who transposes her unfulfilled maternal instincts on to her young colleagues Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a ditsy who won't remove her skates during sex, and Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), the 17-year-old country boy whose rise to stardom is the movie's main focus.

At the beginning of the film, Eddie is clearing tables at a night-club, but he already knows how to market himself - there's a five-dollar charge just to see him drop his trousers in the store room. Mark Wahlberg is a seasoned pro when it comes to promoting the contents of his underpants - he modelled Calvin Klein boxer shorts - but this is belied by the blow- dried naivety and chipmunk chirpiness he brings to the role. Although Eddie is a sexual creature, you couldn't call him libidinous - you get the feeling sex makes him happy only because his generous endowment makes other people happy. Sex in the film can be an abstract expression of tenderness, as when Amber and Eddie perform on set for the first time, or hostility, as in the scene when a woman cuckolds her ineffectual husband while party guests look on - but it's never about love or desire.

Anderson booby-traps his audience's expectations, lining up repeated scenes that promise to reveal Eddie's prize asset, before cutting away to a goggle-eyed onlooker or a popping cork. By the time the object of attention is finally uncovered,its totemistic potency has vanished; this supposed symbol of masculine power now represents Eddie's inadequacy. The fact that you see Eddie only from the neck down as he marvels at himself in the dressing-room mirror, confirms that his personality has been overshadowed by his penis, just as he has traded his name and identity for the crudely suggestive pseudonym Dirk Diggler. It's a measure of how comfortable we have become with movies being instruments for male aggrandisement that this scene, which we have been primed for as a moment of celebration, has a sour scuzziness.

Although Boogie Nights functions successfully as a critique of masculinity, Anderson often gets caught up in his own boastful games. The authority of the unbroken tracking shot is immense, but for every Touch Of Evil there is an Absolute Beginners, and the two long tracking shots in Boogie Nights fall somewhere in between. The first, introducing all the main characters, is a giddy fix of whiz-bang arrogance. The second, where the camera tours a pool-side party, is tricksy and fussy - it's like watching a cocky kid ride no-handed straight into a lamppost.

Generally, Anderson is content to linger on slacking actors, such as William H Macy, whose rumpled face might have been kept in a trunk in the attic for years. More extraordinary is Julianne Moore. Her most technically brilliant thing comes in the excerpt from one of Jack's movies, where she pulls off the trick of being a convincingly stilted performer. It's a joyous piece of good/ bad acting - not easy for an actress whose defining characteristic is her cool, assured intensity.

A shocking death brings the Seventies section of Boogie Nights to an abrupt close, and also heralds a dependency on contrivance that renders the film's second half grossly manipulative. The influence of Robert Altman on Boogie Nights is undeniable, but Anderson goes too far in portraying Jack as the porn industry equivalent of Warren Beatty in McCabe and Mrs Miller, with hungry new entrepreneurs moving in on his territory; and a sequence that cross-cuts between two acts of random violence smacks of the clumsiness that made parts of Short Cuts creak. There is no logical reason for the apocalyptic atmosphere, other than Anderson wanting to shift the tone from light to dark. Eddie gets too big for his boots, but can't get big enough for that all-important close-up. Rollergirl gets blood on her skates; more disturbing, Anderson seems to have got the story-boards from Goodfellas mixed up with his own. How else could you explain the imitation Scorsese signature shots, such as the camera swooping down on to a ringing telephone?

It's a mark of the film's conventional nature that characters who don't fit in with the family are punished. It's understandable that a paedophile should get his comeuppance, but when a gay crew member who has a crush on Eddie ends up racked with self-hatred, and Eddie himself is attacked by homophobic thugs, then you're inclined to feel uncomfortable. Anderson's allegiance to the family is as complicated and contradictory as his view of Eddie. One moment you're asked to feel sympathy for this boy, cast out by a mother who ridicules him for being stupid; the next you are encouraged to laugh at him for having an IQ that is numerically lower than his penis size. When a director gets in such a hopeless spin about his own perspective, an audience can forget whether it's coming or going.

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