Aside from a fleeting glimpse of a sign reading "2nd Annual Adult Film
Awards," the trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights does not
offer a single clue of its porn-industry setting. This might seem
misleading, but in skirting the provocative issue, the prudish preview
ironically gives a more accurate sketch of what this fascinating,
decade-spanning drama is truly about.
The adult film industry is front and center as the film opens in the San
Fernando Valley in 1977. Anderson introduces the major players
GoodFellas-style with a single shot winding through a crowded discotheque:
producer/director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds); stars Amber Waves (Julianne
Moore), Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), and
Rollergirl (Heather Graham); production manager Little Bill (William H.
Macy); and 17-year-old waiter Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), who catches the
attention of Jack. Jack sees superstar potential in the fresh-faced Eddie,
and he is right--propelled by his large natural endowment and its ability
to perform on camera, Eddie becomes an overnight porn sensation under the
name of Dirk Diggler, sweeping the Adult Film Awards every year and
creating a popular franchise character in secret agent Brock Landers.
Tragic gunshots ring in the 1980s, and at this point Anderson uncovers
Boogie Nights's true nature. As Dirk's fortunes take a slide and advent of
video changes the adult entertainment industry forever, the film reveals
itself as not a mere portrait of the porn business but above all else a
study of the people involved, the hopes and dreams within this makeshift
family. For some, porn is just a means to a greater end: Buck dreams of
opening up his own stereo shop; Reed would rather be a full-time magician.
But a lot of the time, involvement in the business proves to be an
insurmountable and humbling obstacle, a large skeleton in the closets of
all involved. While the porno setting hooks the viewer and remains as a
backdrop thoroughout, but it is the characters that carry the audience
Ironically, though, the focal character is one of the least interesting.
Eddie/Dirk starts off as an ambitious, naive kid and becomes an ambitious,
naive, and egotistical man. Wahlberg, who gives a very competent
performance, conveys the naivete and eventual arrogance well, but he needs
to work on his vulnerability; above all else, Eddie/Dirk is portrayed as a
dreamer, but I could not connect with the distant Wahlberg. More engaging
emotionally and in every other way are Moore's Amber, the porn vet who
yearns to be a mother to her absent son; Cheadle's Buck, who prides himself
on being a real actor; and Graham's Rollergirl, a parentless high-school
dropout whose freewheeling ways hide deep anger and pain. Reynolds should
be on his way to a real comeback with his confident, relaxed work as Jack,
the idealistic porn auteur who strives for some legitimacy.
Most of all, Boogie Nights is a showcase for 26-year-old
writer-director-producer Anderson, who proves himself a major talent to
watch with this, his second feature (following the acclaimed Reno
underworld saga Hard Eight). Not only does he effortlessly juggle a wide
canvas of characters and storylines, coax fine performances from his entire
cast, and employ some bravura camera work, he shows an amazing eye for
detail. The tacky '70s hairstyles, costumes, and dance moves are so
dead-on as to be almost painful to watch. Also hilarious are the porn
sequences; the wafer-thin premises, lame dialogue, flaccid line readings,
cheap production values, suggestive character names--all of the most minute
details are paid attention to. Adding even more authenticity is the great
soundtrack filled with numerous '70s and '80s standards (though, curiously,
the title tune is nowhere to be heard). Anderson's wry sense of humor
shows through in the most subtle of ways; title cards stating dates are
frequently posted onscreen, the last of which drolly reads "one last thing
(long way down)".
Boogie Nights rounds out its swift 152-minute running time with a scene
that is simple and quiet, yet deceptively so. With the mere sight and
sound of one character talking to himself, Anderson sums up the joy and
optimism of dreamers everywhere, as well as the sadness that come with the
ultimate awareness of one's limits. "You're a star," goes the film's final
line. Truer words cannot be spoken about Paul Thomas Anderson.