Boogie Nights (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There was a time during the long history of the adult entertainment industry that porn films showed signs of artistic ambition. During the late '70s, a small cadre of directors believed that they could combine the raunch of real sex with an involving plot. It was a lofty goal, and one that ultimately proved impossible to realize, especially with the advent of video forcing movies to be made cheaper and faster. In his new film, Boogie Nights, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson takes us back to the disco era, and, by following a small group of characters, recreates the rise and fall of "artistic porn" and those who participated in it.

But Boogie Nights isn't just an expose of the porn industry -- it's a provocative and involving character study, as well. While it could be argued that Anderson has bitten off more than he can chew -- a few too many of the men and women populating his film are left half-developed -- an overambitious approach is always preferable to the alternative, and Boogie Nights does enough things right that it's easy to overlook its few shortcomings.

One of the movie's greatest, and most immediately obvious, assets is its ability to capture the feel and mood of the late '70s and early '80s. At different times throughout the film, Anderson uses long, single takes where the camera pans from one character to another, putting the viewer in the midst of a swirl of activity. The director also has a talent for picking just the right songs for each scene, making the soundtrack an integral part of the movie rather than just a jumbled collection of old disco hits. Add to that the hairdos, clothing, decor, and attitudes of the era, and you have an effective re-creation of recent history. And, unlike The Ice Storm, which transpires in '70s suburbia, Boogie Nights is set in the sleazy heart of Los Angeles' drug-and-sex industry.

Anderson also does a wonderful job of delineating the differences between the late '70s and the early '80s. The first half of the film, which takes place between 1977 and late 1979, is lively and energetic, with the focus on parties and good times. Then, following a pivotal sequence at a 1979/80 New Year's Eve gathering, Boogie Nights' tone shifts to something more grim and contentious. The porn industry goes into a downward spiral with mass-market video supplanting carefully-made movies, and the actors and directors are sucked down with it. Drugs and death run rampant. No one dies during the movie's first half (although there is a drug overdose), but the final hour features a body count.

At Boogie Nights' center is Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a waiter at a San Fernando Valley night club who is "discovered" by idealistic porn movie producer/director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). Jack's dream is to make a movie that is "true, and right, and dramatic," and his vision excites Eddie, who changes his name to Dirk Diggler and quickly becomes the hottest young stud in the industry. Together, the director and his star seek to elevate the Adult Film to the next level (which actually resembles a cheap exploitation action flick).

Dirk isn't the only one under Jack's wing. His home has become the gathering place for all sorts of damaged souls working in the business. There's Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), a top female star who has lost custody of her son because of her involvement with Jack. Rollergirl (Heather Graham) is an airheaded young starlet who drops out of high school to be in the movies. Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) is one of Jack's veterans, but his dream is to have a wife, a family, and his own hi-fi equipment store. Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) is a hanger-on who becomes close friends with Dirk. And Little Bill (William H. Macy) is a behind-the-scenes worker who never feels comfortable with the kind of movies that he's involved in. His resolution to this dilemma leads to Boogie Nights' change of direction.

Although Mark Wahlberg has the starring role, and gives the best performance of his still-young career (although there are still times when he is stiff), he is easily overshadowed by two more impressive portrayals. Burt Reynolds, doing his best motion picture work in recent memory, develops Jack into a three-dimensional individual who really believes in his job until disillusionment hits. Matching Reynolds' performance step-by-step is Julianne Moore, who can add her role in Boogie Nights to an ever-increasing list of interesting and challenging characters. Meanwhile, Heather Graham, Don Cheadle, and William H. Macy are impressive in smaller parts (all of them deserve more screen time). And porn icon Nina Hartley gets some mainstream exposure, and even a few lines, as Little Bill's wife.

Boogie Nights is filled with so many subplots and secondary themes that it would be impossible to recount them all here. Some of the most obvious involve the allure of stardom and the price certain individuals are willing to pay to attain it, the difficulty of "rehabilitating" one's name after being associated with something as "damaging" as the porn industry, and the inner need to belong. All of the men and women populating Boogie Nights encounter at least one of these elements as they traverse their character arc.

With Boogie Nights, Anderson has realized the potential he showed in his previous feature, Hard 8 (which featured John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall, two members of this movie's ensemble cast). Boogie Nights is a dramatically rich and visually arresting motion picture that has earned (and is deserving of) comparisons to the films of Robert Altman. Anderson takes risks with this movie, few of which fall short. (One of these is the pointed and sure-to-be controversial final shot -- a perfectly conceived and framed statement about the de-humanizing effects of the porn industry.) The result is a memorably penetrating motion picture.

Boogie Nights (United States, 1997)

Ranked #8 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1997
Run Time: 2:28
U.S. Release Date: 1997-10-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity, Violence, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1