Boogie Nights
Reviewed in April 1998
Top Ten List: #4 of 1997 (U.S. releases)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, William H. Macy, Robert Ridgely, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nicole Ari Parker, Luis Guzmán, Ricky Jay, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, Thomas Jane, Alfred Molina, Nina Hartley, Michael Jace, Jonathan Quint, Kai Lennox, Joanna Gleason, Lawrence Hudd, Stanley DeSantis, Michael Stein, Michael Penn, Laurel Holloman, Lil' Cinderella, Greg Lauren, Jason Andrews, Veronica Hart, John Doe, Goliath, Joe G.M. Chan. Screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Photo © 1997 New Line Cinema
Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights is a giddy, transporting examination of the rise and fall of American porn as an almost-mainstream commodity, from the late 1970s to the beginning of the 1980s. Mark Wahlberg stars as Eddie Adams, a foggy but earnest busboy whose ticket to fame is his prodigious (ahem) long-range missile. The "fame" he acquires, though, is of the most ephemeral type—breezy and jet-settish enough to allow for a "hi-fi" 1979 bungalow, a paid-for wardrobe, and the probably-immortal new moniker Dirk Diggler, but also the kind of precarious notoriety that is the riskiest to maintain and the most punishing to find oneself suddenly without.

Eddie enters the biz after Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), an ambitious, long-time director of porn, meets him at work at the restaurant and invites him back to his home, where various characters wander through the always-open doors. Chief among these is Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Jack's live-in lover and the self-appointed den mother of the whole gallery of performers who, like her, appear in Jack's movies. Roller Girl (Heather Graham) is one of her adoptive "children," a high-school dropout who seems drawn to porn as a way of life that fully accommodates her California-girl whimsy; she'll do anything as long as she never has to take off her skates.

The sequences following Eddie's transformation into Dirk Diggler, and his subsequent ascendancy into true porn stardom (whatever that actually means), are almost without question the movie's strongest. Several scenes—Wahlberg's first scene-take with Moore, his elated showmanship of his large new home, Jack's misguided speeches about the mainstream potential of pornography—are individual standouts, but Boogie Nights preserves a spiralling momentum, upward and outward.

Other characters weave in and out of the movie, including Buck Swope (Devil in a Blue Dress' Don Cheadle), a stereo salesman bent on ditching his adult-movie career for legitimate entrepreneurship; Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly of Georgia), another performer who thinks far more highly of his numerous "talents" than he really should; Little Bill (Fargo's William H. Macy), a camera operator constantly jealous of his wife's flagrant infidelities; and Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman, later seen in The Big Lebowski), a crewman who's not quite sure what to make of his enthusiasm for Wahlberg. Part of the kick of Anderson's film is that when business is booming, everyone in this family, from the director to grip-men like Scotty are equally rewarded and equally optimistic.

Then, at one discreet moment, everything starts to sour. Anderson schematizes his characters' self-destruction a little too directly with the dawn of the 1980s and the arrival of video, and for a short while the writing begins to wobble a bit. Moore's history as a divorced mother denied visitation rights to her children is briefly reemphasized in a maudlin scene, though the actress' playing is as strong and economical as anything she's done. Roller Girl disappears for a long stretch of time, an absence that is never sufficiently explained even when she returns.

Boogie Nights never exactly recovers the tightness of its first hour, but it certainly doesn't descend into permanent disorganization as some critics have charged. Yes, the film starts to resemble a collection of scenes more than a fluid whole, but Anderson implements plenty of devices that prove how intentionally he lets the rhythm of his film collapse: the odd, echoing clanging sound laid under an entire ten-minute sequence, for example, or the irregular, jarring firecracker eruptions in a rich addict's living room. All of these techniques reinforce the erratic, moment-to-moment existence the characters inherit as their drug addictions worsen, their employment opportunities dwindle, and their contact with one another grows more and more infrequent. A more controlled or compacted rendering of their collapse would have been ill-suited to the rangy, unhurried spirit of the film's beginning.

Almost all of Anderson's characters make an impression, though some of their storylines (Cheadle's, for example) are much more satisfyingly portrayed than others (like Macy's). Anderson's care in choosing such proven character actors—none of whom have ever been above a little showboating—also gives Boogie Nights a cohesive ensemble that nonetheless feels as though each member is occasionally trying to out-do the others. Rather than a liability, that sort of "sibling rivalry" effect nicely evokes the characters' desperate efforts to survive in a dying business once porn profits start to slide into the abyss of video retail.

Still, the film ultimately belongs to Wahlberg and Reynolds. Anderson's generous decision to cast these actors, both working against a credibility burden of proof as Underwear Model and Hollywood Has-Been, seems a logical extension of his compassion for his characters, and both men come through with terrific work. Wahlberg, earns our respect with his impressive navigation of moods, from Eddie Adams' naïve awe to Dirk Diggler's substance-abetted volatility; Reynolds reearns it with his physically humble but aggressively spirited turn.

Writer-director Anderson's second film, Boogie Nights has been often enough cited for its similarities to Robert Altman's Nashville. Even if, I would argue, it never quite achieves the full-blooded vitality of that film, Anderson does convince us that porn, as Altman did with country music, has something larger to say about the national psyche at a particular historical moment than a less sensitive artist might have perceived; at the same time, the lifestyle is not romanticized as some paragon existence, and the film rarely belabors its metaphor of porn "artistry" as democratic process.

Moreover, I greatly appreciated Boogie Nights' decision to capture the porn lifestyle on its own terms and allow the political and sociological implications to speak for themselves; unlike Miloš Forman and the otherwise-magnificent The People vs. Larry Flynt, he does not hedge away from his subject and recast his interest in it as an issue of free speech or personal liberty. True, Anderson places a great deal of weight on an alleged cultural shift between 1979 and 1980 he doesn't much bother to substantiate; then again, no one in Boogie Nights pretends to be politically or culturally savvy, so perhaps it would have been condescending for the director to insist on being so.

Regardless of its pace or its political mindfulness, Boogie Nights deserves high praise for calibrating its impact directly along the highs and lows experienced by its characters. Few movies of late have been willing to sideline plot for such an intimate focus on its players; nor have many screenplays afforded so many personalities who bear up under such prolonged investigation. Anderson's film is not perfect, but its energy is high and unforced, its pacing smartly maneuvered, and its cast uniformly excellent. That's a party I'll go to any time. Grade: A–

(in October 1997: A)

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress: Julianne Moore
Best Supporting Actor: Burt Reynolds
Best Original Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Supporting Actress: Julianne Moore
Best Supporting Actor: Burt Reynolds

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Supporting Actor (Reynolds)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actress (Moore); Best Supporting Actor (Reynolds); New Generation Award (Anderson; also cited for Hard Eight)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Moore); Best Supporting Actor (Reynolds)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best New Filmmaker (also cited for Hard Eight)
Satellite Awards: Best Supporting Actress, Drama (Moore); Best Supporting Actor, Drama (Reynolds); Special Achievement Award (Ensemble Cast)

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