From the opening shot of “Boogie Nights,” Paul Thomas Anderson makes it abundantly clear that he knows exactly what he’s doing. He begins with a 3-minute-long Steadicam shot of a nightclub circa 1977, elegantly sweeping around past hundreds of faces, including the dozen or so members that make up his primary cast. The restless motion begins to halt as he zooms in in slow motion on the face of the young Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). From these three minutes alone, we know that Eddie—and Paul Thomas Anderson, by extension—is something special. This opening is spectacular and showy; it’s the result of a man studying the Copacabana shot until he understands its minutiae. As with the remainder of “Boogie Nights,” it’s breathtaking and entertaining, yet nearly falls into cliché.
“Boogie Nights” is ostensibly the story of Eddie Adams as he transforms into bona-fide porn-star Dirk Diggler during the golden age of porn. Eddie is taken under the wing of veteran porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and his lover/lead actress Maggie “Amber Waves” (Julianne Moore). Dirk instantly becomes one of Jack’s most popular and promising performers due to his good looks, endurance, and mythically large dick. As Dirk becomes more successful, he befriends fellow porn star Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), and the two become costars as well as close friends. Dirk’s rise to stardom coincides with the end of The Golden Age of Porn and the rise of video, leading to his inevitable descent into cocaine abuse and obscurity. While the film’s summary reads as typical biopic fare, the charms of “Boogie Nights” come primarily from the film’s colorful—and often tragic—ensemble of characters.
Anderson’s vision of the pornography industry is decidedly unglamorous. Sure, there’s money, cocaine and beautiful men and women, but everyone in “Boogie Nights” wants to be doing something else with their life. Luis Guzmán’s Maurice doesn’t just want to run a nightclub; he wants to be a porn star. Heather Graham’s Rollergirl doesn’t just want to be a porn star; she wants to get her GED. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Scotty doesn’t just want to be Dirk’s friend; he wants to be his lover. Don Cheadle’s Buck doesn’t just want to be an ex porn-star; he wants to open his own used stereo store. Jack Horner doesn’t just want to make porn; he wants to tell a story so compelling that it “just sucks them in and when they spurt out that joy juice they just gotta sit in it. They can’t move until they find out how the story ends.”
This list of supporting characters living their own mini-tragedies goes on and on. Despite the fact that the central story can be summarized as “Raging Bull” with pornography instead of boxing, “Boogie Nights” is a true ensemble film. It’s the kind of film where it feels odd to single out any individual performer because everyone is completely natural in their role. One of Anderson’s greatest qualities is his desire to create fully lived-in, unconventional characters. In “Boogie Nights,” he gives each of his characters enough time to their story, and manages to fill the film’s 155-minute runtime without ever bloating the film or letting it drag. The films-within-the-film are straight-faced parodies of 70s-style porn, filled with bad acting and ridiculous plot tropes. With these scenes, “Boogie Nights” manages to alternate between deadpan comedy and subtle tragedy effortlessly. Because of its sense of humor and likable characters, “Boogie Nights” manages to be Anderson’s most audience-friendly film, despite its relatively intimidating runtime.
A key, and often frustrating problem with “Boogie Nights” is the way in which Anderson takes advantage of his film knowledge. There’s a fine line between reference and cliché, and at times, “Boogie Nights” walks that line a bit too closely. The pool-party scene in “Boogie Nights” is effectively a long reference to the opening shot of “I Am Cuba,” without adding much to the iconic scene. The final scene is cribbed directly from “Raging Bull,” albeit with significantly more prosthetic penis. While references are fun to spot, and no great film is without its predecessors, “Boogie Nights” takes from Scorsese a bit too often without adding much new—even the popularity of “I Am Cuba” is mostly due to Scorsese’s involvement with its rerelease in the mid-90s.
Anderson resorts to cliché again for the central climax of the film: the central characters each reach their dramatic low point at exactly the same, and their lowest moments are cut together to appear to coincide. There’s nothing inherently wrong with structuring a film around this kind of climax, but it risks sending the film over the top. Dirk’s low point in particular makes little sense, and is of no clear fault of his own: having run out of money due to his constantly increasing cocaine intake, Dirk resorts to prostitution, and is beaten and robbed by a gang of homophobic thugs after agreeing to jerk off in front of a male client. It seems odd that Dirk’s low point occurs while he is doing precisely what he was doing in his heyday, and has oddly homophobic undertones. There’s something quite off-putting about the fact that Dirk—a professional sex-worker—has his lowest point during his first homosexual encounter shown in the film. Social issues aside, it’s a blatant attempt to portray Dirk as a victim, and it nearly breaks the film’s high-paced stride.
In the end, these are small missteps. Anderson would come to master the trope of intertwining low points in his next film, “Magnolia,” by embracing his brand of over-the-top showmanship, deliberately pushing the film past cliché and into operatic territory. In a way, “Boogie Nights” can be seen as an entertaining, if sometimes predictable, stepping stone to the rest of his career. We get to see him balance comedy and drama in way he hasn’t since attempted, and he produces some of his greatest characters in the process. “Boogie Nights” is also the only film of his so far that is both a character study and an ensemble film, though his upcoming film “Inherent Vice” seems to fit the bill pretty well, based on the source material. It’s a fun ride, and great to watch a modern master come into his own, even if Anderson is a little too eager to show off his cinematic dick.Continue Reading Issue #25
October 10, 1997
2 hr. 35 min.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, Luis Guzmán, Philip Seymour Hoffman