One of the wonderful things about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights is the generosity he extends to his characters, who form a surrogate family at the center of the porn industry in the 1970s, when XXX-rated movies were shot on film and distributed to actual movie theaters. Back then, it was common for porn to build around an actual story, however cheesy and perfunctory, to give the sex some sort of dramatic context; thanks to the “porn chic” that gave Deep Throat its cultural moment, filmmakers were still trying to appeal to couples, not men exclusively. The onset of video, also detailed beautifully in Boogie Nights, ushered in a permanent age of desultory sex-scene compilations, sometimes with reality-TV-style interviews and confessionals as a crude prelude to getting it on.
If anything, Anderson was being overly generous, despite his abundant movie-within-a-movie footage of abysmal acting and dialogue, because he cares so much about these outcasts, and locks into a director’s dream of making “a film that is true and right and dramatic.” Because the true tone of story-driven porn—and look no further than Deep Throat as an example of this—was usually as glib, smarmy, and “clever” as the premise of a sexually frustrated woman with a clitoris in the back of her throat. In that respect, the vile indie horror movie Lucky Bastard is a throwback to the supposed 1970s Golden Age when ambitious pornographers thought they were being smart and knowing about sex and the industry, but sprained their tongues from pressing too hard into their cheeks. Though the film’s look and conceit is purely 2010s—found-footage, multiple cameras, Internet-driven—its smugness is vintage Van Nuys.
After a murky police investigation sequence that primes viewers for the carnage to come, Lucky Bastard flashes back to a week before the crime scene, when Mike (Don McManus), the lovable-asshole head of a porn website and production company, gets ready for his latest shoot. Mike’s site invites fans to submit audition tapes for a chance to have sex with real porn stars on camera; the tradeoff for having their fantasies come true is that as amateurs, they have performance issues on multiple levels. Porn star and single mom Ashley Saint (My Bloody Valentine 3-D’s Betsy Rue) initially declines Mike’s offer to participate, citing an ironclad rule against working with amateurs, but he waves enough money in her face to secure her services. Rest assured, they’ve found the creepiest possible winner in Dave G. (Jay Paulson), a Norman Bates type who seems clean-cut and eager to please, but doesn’t deal well with adversity.
Somewhere beneath a thicket of graceless vulgarity, inside-the-biz references, and a pile of bodies too listlessly dispatched for the film to count as horror, Lucky Bastard tries to get at the relationship between porn and the men who watch it, who believe they’re entitled to a level of access and intimacy that’s completely off-limits. There’s also something there about Dave G.’s sexual humiliation, and the extreme lengths he goes to restore his dignity, though that’s really more a justification for bloody mayhem. But Lucky Bastard mostly combines the worst of all worlds: the less-clever-than-it-thinks script of old-school porn, the piercing brightness and flatness of video production, an especially lackluster rendering of the played-out found-footage horror concept. There’s even a rape fake-out in there for good measure. Dave G. can sympathize: This is amateur-hour all around.