Whether or not you like the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, you can’t say he doesn’t take on difficult material. “The Master” dealt with debilitating alcoholism and cults. “There Will Be Blood” was a scorching essay on capitalism and fatherhood, set in California oil fields in the 1890’s. But perhaps nothing quite touches the high wire act that is “Boogie Nights.”

Mark Wahlberg plays Dirk Diggler, a young porn star whose rise and fall are rendered in gorgeous fashion. After his mother kicks him out, Diggler is taken in by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who sees himself as the last great artist in pornography. Their earnest love for the films they create makes the movie great. Julianne Moore plays the porn den-mother, Horner’s wife. Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and others play the rest of the production team, each of them fully realized and full of humor and pain.

In typical Andersonian fashion, normal people are asked to make impossible decisions that they mess up catastrophically and profoundly. But we’re meant neither to pity nor hate them—just to accept them. Horner laments the shift from ‘70s film to ‘80s video, not just from the point of view of a porn connoisseur, but from the point of view of someone asking what’s being lost. Is it a sense of artistry? Is there even any artistry to filming people having exaggerated sex? Anderson seems to think so, and by the end of the movie, you’re inclined to agree. “Boogie Nights” is available on Netflix.

Bernstein is a member of the class of 2018.

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