Porn In The U.S.A.

''EVERYONE'S BLESSED WITH ONE special thing,'' boasts 17-year-old busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) from Torrance, Calif. Eddie, who will rename himself Dirk Diggler and become a shining star in the world of ""adult entertainment,'' is blessed with an exceptionally large penis. It will take him for quite a ride.

Paul Thomas Anderson, the 27-year-old writer and director of Boogie Nights, which charts Dirk's meteoric rise and fall, has one special thing, too--an enormous talent for making movies. Gloriously alive from its virtuoso opening shot that swerves through a Reseda, Calif., nightclub to its revealing conclusion--in which Dirk's special thing is unveiled in all its absurd, slumbering glory--""Boogie Nights'' is one of those breakthrough movies that leaves no doubt you are in the presence of a natural-born filmmaker. Like Spielberg's ""Sugarland Express'' or Scorsese's ""Mean Streets,'' Anderson's mesmerizing movie announces the arrival of a major career.

Who could have foreseen that an epic about the porn business in the late '70s and early '80s would turn out to be the most invigorating, deeply entertaining American movie so far this year? The milieu is sleazy, the era is vulgar, the people are dumb . . . and for almost 2 1/2 hours, a gifted filmmaker convinces you there's no more fascinating place to be. A stunning provocation, ""Boogie Nights'' asks us to consider the meaning of the term ""family values'' from the vantage point of a makeshift band of pornographers living and working in the San Fernando Valley. The father figure in this constellation is porno filmmaker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who discovers Dirk/Eddie in the kitchen of a valley nightclub and realizes he's stumbled upon a ""17-year-old piece of gold.''

The exhilarating, often hilarious first hour, set in the disco-driven, polyester-clad year of 1977, introduces us to Horner's professional ""family,'' a wonderfully motley crew. There's porno star Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), the unofficial den mother, who takes Dirk under her alternately seductive and maternal wing. There's Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a high-school dropout turned sex star, who will shed any item of clothing except her roller skates. There's the country-music-loving ""actor'' Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) and Dirk's dim best friend, Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), who plays Dirk's screen sidekick in Horner's action-movie porn films. On the other side of the camera is William H. Macy's Little Bill, whose insatiable wife (played by real porn actress Nina Hartley) cuckolds him at every opportunity, and Horner's strictly business cameraman (sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay).

Anderson's take on this tacky Californian subculture is at once blisteringly satirical and compassionate. These self-deluded denizens of the fringes of the entertainment world are the pathetic residue of the American lust for celebrity. Anderson mocks Dirk's bad taste in clothes and furniture (the art direction is a marvel of late-'70s kitsch), but his movie never turns sour with condescension--he has a genuine affection for these lost souls. Good anthropologist that he is, he lets us see the workaday normality of the job, and the way these folks create an alternative family to replace those they've fled. Anderson doesn't spare us the lurid, exploitative aspects of this milieu, but his movie never feels like exploitation.

As the '70s turn into the '80s--and video replaces film as the medium for porn movies--Dirk lets his ""stardom,'' not to mention piles of cocaine, go to his head. If the first half of ""Boogie Nights'' is a kind of parody of the Hollywood rags-to-riches musical (Anderson says he had ""Singin' in the Rain'' in mind), the second half charts Dirk's crash and burn, as he is banished from Horner's stable and bottoms out on drugs, hustling and his own fractured ego. Though there are moments when Anderson's perfect pitch fails him (the bizarre shoot-out in a doughnut shop belongs in another movie) the fever-grip of his filmmaking holds you in thrall. And at the end of the trip is a bittersweet homecoming far more provocative than the wages-of-sin finale a conventional moralist would have provided.

The big ensemble cast shines from top to bottom. The former Marky Mark (slimmed down for a pre-pumped-up era) may not be a trained actor, but he navigates this tricky role with amazing assurance. Reynolds is the best he's been in decades: he brings a weary dignity to Horner, a man who choreographs sex for a living but seems to have no sex life of his own. Moore, who can turn on a dime from suffering Madonna to lip-smacking porn performer, is heartbreakingly good. There must have been moments when these actors wondered where their director was taking them, and if it was worth the risk. It was: ""Boogie Nights'' doesn't play it safe, and everyone involved in it comes up smelling like roses.

A few months ago, Paul Thomas Anderson found his second-grade school notebook: ""My name is Paul Anderson. I want to be a writer/director/producer/special effects man. I know how to do everything. I know it all.'' He was 6 at the time. When he was 17, a high-school kid in Van Nuys, Calif., he got a video camera and made a half-hour movie called ""The Dirk Diggler Story,'' partly inspired by the sad tale of the late legendary porn star John Holmes, partly inspired by his curiosity about what was going on behind the walls of the anonymous warehouses he'd seen growing up in the San Fernando Valley. There was never any doubt he was meant to make movies.

The intense, slightly built Anderson was too impatient to get to work to linger in school. He spent two semesters as an English major at Emerson College, and two days at NYU film school. A short film led to an invitation to the Sundance Lab, where he developed the script for his first feature, ""Hard Eight.'' It was a striking debut (starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall), but few people saw it. Hollywood, however, was not blind to his talent. When he approached New Line with his script about the porn industry, it jumped aboard. A deal was cut: New Line would let Anderson make a 2 1/2-hour movie, but it had to get an R, not an NC-17, rating.

Getting his R took months of back-and-forth negotiations with the MPAA ratings board. The board let him know it loved the movie--indeed, it told him it wanted it to be an NC-17, to restore class to a category it felt had been sullied by ""Showgirls.'' Though the board asked him for numerous trims, to its credit it never had a problem with the dramatically crucial revelation of Dirk's 13-inch member (a prosthetic device, by the way).

When Wahlberg first heard about that scene--before he'd read the script--it reminded him of ""all the stuff I wanted to get away from. My past, making a fool of myself.'' When he first met Anderson, the suspicious former Calvin Klein model asked him: ""Is it about the Marky Mark thing?'' But it didn't take long for him to realize the director was after bigger game. ""It took five minutes of talking,'' Wahlberg says. ""There were so many positives. The screenplay was phenomenal.'' Wahlberg, who's eager to shed his old reputation as a roughneck street kid, claims that making ""Boogie Nights'' ""helped me in my personal life. All this shit I went through growing up'' he saw reflected in Dirk Diggler's struggles to make his mark. ""I realized I could be man enough to deal with it and put it behind me. I wasn't playing me, but I still kind of told the truth.'' Already ""Boogie Nights'' has changed both Wahlberg's and Anderson's lives. Wahlberg just accepted a part as a boxer opposite Robert De Niro in a movie called ""Out on My Feet.'' Playing a porn star has made him respectable. Anderson is suddenly the hottest new kid on the Hollywood block. He shrugs it off. ""At least I know now I can make another movie--at least one,'' he says. He's underestimating the impression his movie is making. This kid's going to be around for the long haul.