Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights is Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature film, but his first, Hard Eight, is so unknown that it practically doesn’t exist. Establishing many stylistic and thematic elements that would pervade his successive three films, Boogie Nights is Anderson’s first exercise as auteur. The result is a fantastic film that is nearly flawless.

Boogie Nights follows a troupe of characters in the porn industry, beginning with the employment of Eddie Adams, soon to be Dirk Diggler (played by Mark Wahlberg). The story is expansive and covers most of the characters from 1977 to 1983, a span that featured many cultural and technological changes. One of the highlights of the film is Anderson’s ability to show how these changes affected individuals from a business that suffered the most because of them.

Of the ensemble cast, Wahlberg’s character still manages to be focal, which sits fine by me. Wahlberg is at his finest as Dirk Diggler, whether he has to play a 17 year old busboy who’s going nowhere in life or a young adult whose egotism and habits have exacerbated the problems of his fall from stardom. Wahlberg handles the many emotions and tragedies that Diggler endures with aplomb. The movie actually ends up being very reminiscent of Goodfellas, with Diggler subbing for Henry Hill (and, of course, porn subbing for crime) – we see one man work his way up from nothing, achieve peak success, then fall apart under the pressure.

Luckily, Boogie Nights is not content to stick to a singular storyline. Featuring a phenomenal ensemble cast would have been worthless without an exploration of each well-acted character, and Anderson knows this. Thus, the film’s two-and-a-half hours are a welcome length to learn about and watch the interesting lives of the various characters.

Burt Reynolds serves as a patriarchal pornmaker who yearns for his films to be erotic art. As a stern and powerful, but genial, father figure, Reynolds is one of the most enjoyable of the cast, never betraying us for rooting for him. Julianne Moore puts in a terrific somber performance as an aging female porn star of Reynolds’ films. His other actors include John C. Reilly at his thinnest, providing an excellent buddy character to accompany Wahlberg in his life’s tragic ordeals, and Don Cheadle, whose life in the latter half of the film is endlessly marred by his participation in the porn industry.

Reynolds’ crew includes Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a repressed gay character in love with Wahlberg, and William H. Macy in perhaps one of the most pitiful and sympathetic roles of recent cinema. Heather Graham is as cute as always and is frankly the only one in danger of being underused, as high-school drop out Rollergirl, and I’d be remiss not to mention Alfred Molina’s fantastic addition as a crazed drug dealer.

Anderson interweaves these stories expertly, always including coalesced instances that include long flowing shots, showing us each character in a single setting without any cuts. It only serves to reinforce the sense of surrogacy that Reynolds builds around his coworkers that lends to the film a funny kind of family feel at times.

Their family isn’t strong enough to withstand the changes of the 80s, however. Video technology and home cassette players develop, drastically changing the industry and seriously dampening Reynolds’ desires to make art. At the same time, the “moral majority” gained a voice with Ronald Reagan, and the crazy lifestyle of the porn industry’s players changes from glamorized to demonized.

The third act of the lengthy film confronts these problems and shows a series of increasingly intense incidents in the splintered lives of the movie’s cast. Expect a severe change in tone from the lighthearted and funtimes first act to a violent and dark third. The rise and fall of all of these characters is more than engaging enough for the admittedly exuberant length, the only possible error in Anderson’s ambitious work.

Boogie Nights is an excellent film that combines magnificent storytelling with entertaining style. The length of the film carries it across various tones, inviting the audience to partake in the same rollercoaster of emotions that the superb ensemble of characters experience. There are many things in this film that Anderson would reuse in later films, such as most of the actors and the symbolic shot of characters passing each other in cars unknowingly. The movie is a must-see, and began the praise for P.T. Anderson that his later films would further justify.

Final rating: 9.5/10

–James A. Janisse


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