Published on October 10th, 1997 | by Padraic Coffey0
Boogie Nights (1997)
“Everyone’s blessed with one special thing”, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) pensively declares in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. The empty-headed teenager is referring rather grandiosely to his own genitalia, which will enable him to skyrocket (no pun intended) in the pornography industry, before hubristic behaviour and drug addiction send him crashing back to reality. No honest person could limit Anderson – a staggering 27 years old when he produced this sophomore effort – to a single solitary talent, though if one were to do so, his ability to elicit career-defining performances from hitherto disregarded actors is certainly impressive. In Boogie Nights, Anderson casts Burt Reynolds in the role of Jack Horner, director of “exotic pictures” and patriarch to a ragbag of social outcasts; high-school dropouts, divorcees, cuckolds, addicts and aspiring magicians. Reynolds had been known as a somewhat derisory figure in Hollywood, appearing in car-chase franchises like Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run. His performance in Boogie Nights is a revelation, for which he would earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. Anderson would repeat the same trick for Tom Cruise and Adam Sandler in the next two films, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, respectively.
Horner is a peculiar character who ties together one of the most extraordinary casts every assembled on screen. He enters a nightclub where a large proportion of the patrons are using cocaine and orders a 7 Up. He issues directions in the frankest possible terms for his pornographic movies, but refers to blustering bravado as “doggy doo-doo”. Horner may not be the central protagonist in Boogie Nights, but he is the film’s lynchpin. The closest we have to a hero is the aforementioned Eddie Adams, alias Dirk Diggler. Mark Wahlberg, like Reynolds, was not taken especially seriously as an actor, known more for his music career under the pseudonym Marky Mark (Wahlberg would later identify ‘Marky Mark’ as his ‘least favourite word’ on television show Inside the Actors Studio). Nonetheless, Wahlberg excels as Diggler, transforming from wide-eyed naïf to aggressive, self-destructive drug-hoover. Elsewhere there is hilarious support from John C. Reilly as Diggler’s perennial sidekick Reed Rothchild, possibly even dimmer than his accomplice. Boogie Nights may not be a comedy, but it ranks as one of the funniest films you are ever likely to see.
So formidable is the cast at Anderson’s disposable, one could get lost in a litany of names; Julianne Moore as the dejected mother, denied access to her son, and desperately in search of a surrogate child. Don Cheadle as the ambitious would-be stereo salesman, prone to identity crises. William H. Macy as the humiliated husband, whose wife’s constant infidelity has tragic repercussions. There are also turns from Anderson regulars Phillip Baker Hall, Robert Ridgely, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guffman. An obvious precursor to Boogie Nights is Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Goodfellas guided the viewer into the world of organised crime, refusing to obscure its obvious appeal, before turning the tables approximately midway through with an act of senseless violence which darkened the tone considerably. Boogie Nights is constructed in a similar fashion, depicting glamorous pool parties at Horner’s lavish house, before a shocking New Years Eve episode appears like a slap in the face, after which the light-hearted atmosphere is never fully recovered.
Anderson may even best Scorsese at his own game. While Goodfellas was littered with memorable supporting characters, so heavily dependent was that film on voiceover narration from the perspective of Henry Hill, and wife Karen, certain ancillary roles appeared almost one-dimensional. In Boogie Nights, every individual is sketched to the degree that their plights could fuel a feature film in its own right. Anderson would capitalise on this enormous skill at characterisation even further in his next film, Magnolia. The influence of Scorsese is evident in Anderson’s stunning use of cinematic techniques; freeze-frames, jump-cuts, swish-pans, montage, split-screen and wall-to-wall soundtrack. Two particularly breathtaking tracking shots stand out; the opening, which introduces us to all major characters in one unbroken take, and a famed homage to Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba, which follows a girl underneath the water of a swimming pool. Any point when the film skates dangerously close to overkill, Anderson skilfully reins in his method.
The film’s dénouement raises questions on whether Anderson is condemning the porn industry, or objectively portraying it. True, Dirk and Reed’s noble intention to create a porn action star without succumbing to misogyny is proven ineffective with the laughably sexist Brock Landers franchise. The much-discussed final scene, an homage to Scorsese’s Raging Bull, finally allows viewers a glimpse at Diggler’s ‘talent’ (sadly prosthetic). There is no indication that a new beginning awaits, as in Goodfellas or Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Depending on viewers’ interpretation, these characters are trapped in a hell of their own making, or comfortably inhabiting the only world where their bizarre attributes are an asset. Anderson avoids any moralising tone; Boogie Nights is all about cinema, a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears, as intoxicating as any of the substances consumed by its characters.