It’s in the Jeans,
Not the Genes
Critics are coming unplugged over Boogie Nights , the new tits-and-ass grind-o-rama about the Hollywood porno industry in the 1970’s that just shocked the New York Film Festival. But in spite of the hype and the closet enthusiasm for raunch and sleaze, the real reason audiences are lining up to see what the fuss is all about is that final scene, where Mark Wahlberg unzips and does his frontal full monty. Some viewers gasp, others giggle. The ones who giggle have already seen the real thing on the Internet, and they know a rubber dicky the size of Pinocchio’s nose when they see one.
Without a prosthesis so phony and anatomically impractical you couldn’t give it away in a tenderloin sex-toy emporium, Mr. Wahlberg, it must be said, gives his all in other laudable ways, making a fine transition from Marky Mark to serious actor. (The underwear remains the same.) In Boogie Nights , the former rap singer plays a dumb, naïve, star-struck 17-year-old dishwasher from the San Fernando Valley named Eddie Adams whose only talent is a hidden attribute of pythonic proportions. Lured into the clutches of a trashy porno film director (Burt Reynolds) whose self-made “family” is a stable of sex slaves and misfits, Eddie is dazzled by the easy access to cocaine, hot tubs and orgies, and quickly changes his name to Dirk Diggler. As a porn attraction, he fits right in with his co-stars in the exploitable cosmic family unit: Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a nymphomaniacal nymphet who takes off everything but her Rollerblades; an aging trollop named Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), who has a son to raise between drug addictions; and a black stud (John C. Reilly) who sells stereo equipment during the day. “Everyone’s blessed with one special thing,” says Dirk Diggler, and you don’t have to ask about his. (It’s in the jeans, not the genes.) Dirk quickly moves up the ladder to cult status while the first hour of the movie catalogues every bump and thump with an often amusing behind-the-scenes spin, a lot of ugly bimbos, cheesy lighting and stupid dialogue (“I could die of starvation before I get something in my mouth”). The movie is marking time, and what else is new?
In the second hour of a very long endurance test, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson finally gets around to something resembling a moral cautionary vision. Time is the enemy in the smut business. Stag film houses convert to video. Old bodies are replaced by younger, harder masturbation fantasies. But this little ragtag group is still dominated and provided for by surrogate Daddy, Mr. Reynolds, who considers himself a true artist. He will never stoop to videotape. He has standards . And so, despite their lizard boots and designer drugs, the “family” disintegrates into a band of outmoded, outclassed and utterly disenchanted sods. The world they’ve created for themselves is a dead-end street, a trap. As each one tries to go straight, a new door slams. Unemployable in other branches of show business, they can’t get bank loans to start fresh venues; they are patronized by the courts; Amber Waves loses her son in a humiliating legal defeat; Rollergirl returns to school but ends up a prostitute; and Dirk Diggler takes his tool on the road and gets the crap beaten out of him by homophobic hoods. There’s only one thing left. They all return to Mr. Reynolds, where the family that screws together stays together, and there’s safety in numbers. While no career ever sustains more than a few years in the sleaze trade, this “family” plods on to what a stunned, depressed viewer only assumes will be a violent, tragic postscript.
There is a certain fascination in all of this, but it’s a crude, garish movie with no inner life. And there isn’t much in it we haven’t seen before. The acting is sincere (Mr. Wahlberg and the bruised but beguiling Ms. Moore are exceptional), but the construction is linear and the insurmountable damage predictable. Dial-doodling in the after-midnight warrens of smut on cable TV’s horrible public access channels, you see the same kind of people depicted in Boogie Nights going through the same sexual calisthenics, looking like they’re badly in need of dental work and a hot bath, urging you to “lie back and get comfortable.” The real world doesn’t accept them as anything but freaks, and even on the inside of the Hershey can, the competition is fierce, and bored porn audiences crave new flesh to get off on. When Boogie Nights investigates the American Dream as the pursuit of pleasure and finds it dead, the movie seems valid, but the trip along the way seems as luridly phony as its fake orgasms.
Lost Horizon With Machine Guns
Seven Years in Tibet is an impressive bore about the Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer who became the first white man to climb the Himalayas all the way to the holy Tibetan city of Lhasa, where he became the tutor, best friend and chief influence on the Dalai Lama. The cinematography is awesome, the filmmaking process looks arduous and interminable and Brad Pitt in particular gives an inspired, natural and thoroughly graceful performance. But it drags on for more than two hours, and if there’s any point to so much hardship and expense, it eludes me. “Brad Pitt is so pretty it doesn’t matter,” said the girl next to me at the press preview. That is a matter of opinion. Another pretty face in a movie as boring as Seven Years in Tibet is just icing on a mildewed cake. It’s Lost Horizon with machine guns.
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud from a script by Becky Johnston based on Mr. Harrer’s autobiography, with chanting monks and Yo Yo Ma cello solos, it’s not a movie you can dismiss as hackwork. But the story is slight, and in light of recent press exposés about Mr. Harrer’s true activities as a member of the Nazi Party, he hardly seems the adorable model citizen Brad Pitt plays in the movie. Claiming to be apolitical, he is first seen deserting his pregnant wife to join a German climbing team and seek personal fame and glory in a narcissistic climb to the top of Nanga Parbat, one of the highest peaks in the world. Arrested by the British, Mr. Harrer escaped from a P.O.W. camp in India accompanied by fellow climber Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) and embarked on another harrowing, two-year trek, miraculously reaching Lhasa. There, they were initially regarded with hostility as unwelcome foreign intruders, then treated to the beauty of a remote, timeless, yet surprisingly creature-comfortable Shangri-la. Faking their way into the trust of the suspicious locals, they learned the Tibetan values of selflessness and abandonment of ego, even as their adopted country experienced a tremendous political upheaval down below. When the war ended in 1945, Mr. Harrer’s wife had already divorced him, he was rejected by the son he had never seen, and he had nowhere else to go. In the seven years he remained in Tibet, he won the friendship and trust of the Dalai Lama, a child who grew into a cultured teenager through his guidance. This is where the movie comes alive, and it’s a joy to watch their odd relationship grow as the boy engages Mr. Harrer to build him a movie theater, pumping him for information on every subject from movies to Paris to Molotov cocktails and Jack the Ripper. But by the time he even helps the innocent, peace-loving Tibetans defend themselves against the invading Chinese Communists, credibility is stretched thin. Supposedly, even a member of Hitler’s SA and SS troops can be rehabilitated with the help of a spiritual teenager.
I’m not sure I buy all of the spirituality on this crowded plate in a time of war, but Brad Pitt makes a dedicated and convincing centerpiece. Saffron-haired and centerfold pretty, he commands attention, manages his Austrian accent fluidly, and even finds a colorful mixture of fun, irony and self-discovery in a complex portrayal. Mr. Thewlis is a nice counterpart as a man who changes visibly as he embraces the philosophy of Buddhism. The scenes between Mr. Pitt and Jamyang Wangchuk, a diplomat’s son from Bhutan who plays the Dalai Lama at 14, are touching highlights in a film that is otherwise too stoic for its own entertainment value. Tibet is played by Argentina and Canada, but never mind. It’s not the location that needs clarification, but what happens when everybody gets there.