In terms of highly anticipated films, "Boogie Nights" is the 500 pound
gorilla of the fall season. For months, through reports from trade
screenings and film festivals, the buzz for this sprawling look at the L.
A. world of pornographic filmmaking in the 70s has been phenomenal. The
big surprise is that the actual movie almost lives up to all of the hype.
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's wildly entertaining epic captures
the late 70s/early 80s era in all its tacky glory, with terrific
performances from a large ensemble cast. To be sure, the film has its
problems. After a near-perfect first hour and a half, Anderson stumbles
badly during an abrupt transition in tone, but quickly regains his
footing for a powerhouse wrap-up. "Boogie Nights" is two and one half
hours long, but the time whizzes by.
The film tells the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of a young man with a
dream. 17-year-old busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) believes that
"everyone is blessed with one special gift." In Eddie's case, the gift is
a 13" penis and boundless sexual energy. Seasoned porn filmmaker Jack
Horner (Burt Reynolds) discovers the kid and before you can say John
Holmes, Eddie becomes Dirk Diggler, porn superstar.
A great deal of the fun in "Boogie Nights" comes from Anderson's perfect
re-creation of the outrageous attitudes and godawful fashions of the 70s,
the most embarrassing decade in memory. Bad taste reigned supreme back
then, and it's all up there on the screen; a leisure-suited, polyester
paean to days gone by. It was an era of unparalleled hedonism as well,
and the film overflows with scenes of copious drug use and unprotected
sex. In the 70s, pornography went from being everyone's dirty little
secret to actually becoming trendy; accordingly, Jack Horner and his
entourage wheel around Los Angeles like kings and queens.
Once a movie star, more recently a national joke, Burt Reynolds reclaims
his career with his portrayal of Jack Horner. Reynolds ditches his
trademark smirks and cackles, playing the character in an straightforward,
extremely assured manner. Jack Horner is a wry old pro who knows the
business of pornography, and Reynold's performance is earning him the
respect he has always almost had. As Dirk Diggler, Mark Wahlberg is
excellent, evolving from shallow kid to pampered superstar to desperate
stoner, all while maintaining a disarming sense of naiveté.
In real life, Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg have led similar careers.
Both became pop icons by taking their clothes off (Reynolds as the first
male centerfold in Cosmopolitan, Wahlberg in the legendary Calvin Klein
underwear ads.) Both mismanaged their fame and saw their careers decline.
It's ironic that the men have now achieved redemption in a film dealing
with sex, drugs and violence. Ironic, and kind of nice.
Wahlberg and Reynolds aren't the only good actors here. The casting of
"Boogie Nights" is virtually flawless, with standout performances from
Julianne Moore as Amber Waves, the earth mother of the group; "Swingers"
Heather Graham as the blissed-out Rollergirl and Don Cheadle as Buck
Swope, a porn actor whose real ambition is to open up a "really bitchin'
27-year-old Anderson's influences show in both the structure and the film
techniques of "Boogie Nights," not that that's necessarily a bad thing.
Beginning with a long, gliding track shot, the first two thirds of the
film are reminiscent of Martin Scorcese's "Goodfellas," with hints of
Robert Altman's "Nashville." The last third of the film comes straight
from the hyper-violent land of "Pulp Fiction's" Quentin Tarantino, with a
twisted homage to Scorcese's "Raging Bull" wrapping things up. Anderson's
big stumble comes in the films last third, as the action shifts from the
decadent late 70s to the greedy 80s. After an hour and a half of giddy
randomness, Anderson lunges into a cluster of scenes depicting various
characters suffering a variety of nasty consequences to their earlier
actions. The sequences badly thrown off the rhythm of the film, making it
feel like some demented Afterschool Special. Luckily, he regains his
balance quickly, leading into a terrifying, dazzling segment of a drug
deal gone wrong that ranks among the most riveting scenes ever laid down
To its credit, "Boogie Nights" doesn't make any grand statement about the
human condition. The film is just a series of stories about a intriguing
group of people during a very goofy and dangerous period of American
culture. What makes this film transcendent is Anderson's vast talent and
the sheer exhilaration of his vision. Each of us is blessed with one
special gift and Anderson certainly has discovered his.
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott