Boogie Nights (1997)

September 10, 1997

After watching filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s propulsive saga Boogie Nights, you’re immediately struck by how complex an experience it is. Anderson understands that the best films don’t have static beginnings or endings. He knows that for films to stay with audiences, they have to leave believing that the characters keep moving after the last reel has concluded; like the audience has just been privy to a small portion of lives continually in transit.

Boogie Nights follows lives perpetually in motion. It’s filled with people constantly searching for emotional fulfillment from the ones around them, and moving on when the well is found dry. Spanning a period between the late Seventies and early Eighties, Nights follows the highs and lows of a group of pornographers through the eyes of their biggest star, revealing lives torn apart by their desire for emotional love and acceptance.

Young Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is blessed with only one notable attribute - he’s the owner of a 13-inch penis, and he’s willing to use it to attain the fame he craves. Porn producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) quickly discovers his rather ample talents, and soon Adams finds himself skyrocketing into superstardom under his new name, Dirk Diggler. He, along with his fleshy co-stars Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Horner’s wife Amber (Julianne Moore) hit big when Diggler introduces his concept of a porno James Bond - an idea which soon leads the characters into a life of vacuous debauchery and, inevitably, catastrophe.

The period look here is bang on, right down to the saucer shaped record players, shag carpeting and a soundtrack filled with some of the worst hits ever to grace a movie. All of the period’s swollen, trashy ditties are here, from some late Seventies pulsating disco duds to the lecherous horror of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and ELO. In fact, the music here is wall-to-wall, assembled like Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Casino, a filmmaker whom Anderson obviously has taken some inspiration from. The tone isn’t the same timbre, but there are definite parallels between Boogie Nights and Raging Bull. It’s a portrait of the dull witted bruiser as a manchild.

It all sounds somewhat insipid on paper, but Anderson and his crackerjack cast manage to pull off the incredible: they invest Boogie Nights with an undeniable humanity. When tragedy falls and the characters tumble with it, there’s such a powerful thread of empathy sewn throughout that it’s impossible not to hurt with them. You actually care for these people, and the fact that they’re doing things that would make many cringe makes the empathy that much more powerful. You feel because these people aren’t allowed to.

Here, as in Anderson’s excellent directorial debut Hard Eight the theme is of family lost and found again, though in both cases the parental bonds come from unusual places. In Boogie Nights, Horner and his wife Amber become surrogate parents to their stable of actors, but because of their business, tensions flare and lives are shattered. Oedipus complexes play themselves out through throbbing bodies and broken hearts - a porn nuclear family in meltdown.

Boogie Nights is an epic in the truest sense, bringing back to life a time of wanton decadence, bell bottoms and bad music with heart and a suprising amount of dark wit. When Diggler looks out from the screen with eyes filled with longing, his desperation fills the room with a melancholic weight that’s devastating. Pornography may be an emotionless melange of limbs and groins thrusting away mechanically, but Paul Thomas Anderson reminds us of the humanity that lies beneath the sweat. He turns these pitiful, foolish sex mannequins into apparitions of pure passion.

ISSN 1499-7894
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