Film Review: Boogie Nights (1997)

in Movies & TV Showslast month (edited)


Being a cinephile in certain parts of the world comes with specific set of challenges. For the author of this review, one important challenge in 1990s was the distributors in his country being unwilling or unable to properly distribute many interesting and important films. So, if I wanted to watch those films, at least on the big screen, I had to be at the right time and right place. That wasn’t the case when Boogie Nights, 1997 period drama by Paul Thomas Anderson was distributed in Croatia. When it came to Croatian theatres, under the title that translates as King of Porn, it arrived and disappeared very quickly, and just at the time when I was enjoying summer holidays. I attempted to catch it by travelling with friends to nearby town with the specific intention to watch Boogie Nights in local theatre. When we arrived at the theatre we were informed by the staff that the intended showing hadd been postponed over too little tickets being sold. So, I had to wait longer than expected before an opportunity to actually watch Anderson’ work. The theatre in question, unsurprisingly, was closed few years later and replaced with multiplex at shopping mall a decade later.

Absence of Boogie Nights from my country’s cinemas was rather awkward because this film, although made in relatively low budget independent production, earned a lot of critical praise and even three Oscar nominations. It didn’t win a single Oscar, which isn’t that surprising, because its protagonist represents something of an antithesis to “Oscar-baiting” formula. Instead of being cursed with mental or physical affliction, he possesses something most men would only dream of. Eddie Adams (played by Mark Wahlberg) is 17-year old boy who lives in dysfunctional home, has dropped out of high school and has to travel to hour and half every time to work as dishwasher in nightclub. He also has incredibly huge penis which, apart from helping him get girlfriends, also made him in some sort of underground celebrity. Thankfully, San Fernando Valley in 1977 is the right place at the right time for becoming a star on the account of that anatomical detail. One of the patrons at the club is Jack Horner (played by Burt Reynolds), director of pornographic films, an industry which has recently went underground ghetto in the open and it seems close to becoming mainstream. Horner, who dreams about adding proper acting, storytelling and other qualities to his work, talks Eddie into acting in his films. He quickly proves to be true talent and with the help and mentoring by Amber Waves (played by Julianne Moore), pornographic actress and Jack’s common-law wife, becomes a big porno star with stage name “Dirk Diggler”. Life in late 1970s becomes increasingly easy for Eddie/Dirk and various picturesque characters hanging on around him, with plenty of money, sex and cheap drugs, mainly cocaine. But in 1980 things begin to change. Arrival of new video technology makes production of pornographic films much cheaper and producer Floyd Gondolli (played by Philip Baker Hall) warns Jack that the industry would now put more emphasis on quantity rather than quality. While Jack tries to adapt to new realities, Eddie, whose behaviour and performance began to be affected by drugs, begins descent that would make him a pathetic wreck.

Like his feature debut Hard Eight, Anderson has based his film on earlier short work. In this case it was The Dirk Diggler Story, 1988 mockumentary obviously inspired by the life of legendary porn actor John Holmes. The new expanded version, however, represented first major mainstream Hollywood production dealing with porn industry since Paul Schrader’s Hardcore nearly two decades earlier. Boogie Nights, however, also gives an interesting insight into the time period that many in 1990s considered fascinating. While Hollywood and porn industry have co-existed before and afterwards, in 1970s, the decade known for its hedonism, permissiveness and crashing the boundaries, the line between those two worlds was looking to become blurred. Pornographic films were made in 35 mm format, in studios and exotic locations, scripts had plots and established characters and both people behind and in front of camera often had background in mainstream theatre or film industry. The era of so-called Porno Chic is among connoiseurs of pornography often described as golden age, in many ways corresponding with zenith of creative freedom in mainstream cinema embodied in New Hollywood. Both movements came crashing down in 1980s due to new technology, socioeconomic trends and, last but not least, their most prominent stars and personalities becoming victims of their own excess and self-delusions.

Anderson depicts the period with some nostalgia, but never attempts to glorify it. Jack Horner and other pornographers who had tried to make “proper” or “art” pornographic films were doomed to fail from the start. Anderson is quite aware of it and, especially in the first part of the film, depicts those efforts with lot of irony and black humour. In the second part of the film, when characters’ inability to adapt to the new realities in 1980s result in deaths and tragedy, the tone is much more serious and darker, very much like in the second part of Trainspotting. Anderson, however, doesn’t take any moralistic approach. People who work in pornography aren’t any better or worse than “normies” and it is just another segment of show business, as legitimate as mainstream. At the semi-ironic finale, porn industry is portrayed even as something closest to family the flawed characters can have.

Anderson shines as director, obviously taking inspiration from grand masters, most notably Scorsese. Anderson opens the film with spectacular tracking shots that introduce number of characters and make the film look more epic than it actually is. Great deal of attention is given to period detail, with clothes and other props from late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as music, with somewhat underwhelming score by Mark Penn being easily overshadowed by period pop songs, mostly those from disco era. Anderson also uses opportunity and epic scope of the story to experiment with styles and even plays with suspense in couple scenes that look like they belong to thrillers, most notably the one inspired by infamous 1981 incident involving John Holmes, which would few year later be depicted in Wonderland, film starring Val Kilmer.

Although it has built its plot around single individual, Anderson made Boogie Nights as an ensemble piece. As such, it relied on diverse, very talented and, ultimately, very inspired cast. Mark Wahlberg, at the time known mostly as fashion model and pop singer, shines in the roles of the protagonist who is not particularly bright but who nevertheless wins audience’s sympathy because of inability to understand how destructive some of his illusions can be. This motive of dangerous self-delusions can be seen in almost all characters. That includes Jack Horner, brilliantly played by Burt Reynolds in one of the most celebrated roles of his long and impressive career. Reynolds won Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, and this achievement is even more impressive in light of Reynolds being at odds with Anderson during production, later being critical of film and, reportedly, almost coming to blows with young director. Julianne Moore is also very good in role of woman who deludes herself that she can be film director and mother while being affected by drugs. Same can be said of Heather Graham, one of the more interesting actresses of her generations, who plays potentially thankless role of dity porn star Rollegirl and bravely performs with full frontal nudity. Don Cheadle is also very interesting in the role of one of Jack’s actors and African American who defies stereotypes by loving country and western music and being technical geek. Even actors in minor episodes shine, especially Alfred Molina as drugged-out crime lord near the end and William H. Macy as Jack’s assistant Little Bill who gets constantly and openly cuckolded. Anderson gave opportunity for acting to some of actual pornographic actresses like Nina Hartley (who appears as Little Bill’s over-promiscuous wife) and Veronica Hart (who appears as judge in Amber Wave’s custody case).

Some might be disappointed by Boogie Nights and for different reasons. Some might find this film overlong and some of the subplots undeveloped or some characters redundant. Some might complain about authors’ lack of condemnation of protagonists’ life choice and the pornography as inherently harmful activity. Some might be unhappy over relative lack of explicit sex and nudity in film that actually deals with the subject. But those who actually give this film a chance would be awarded by display of extraordinary directorial talent, richness of detail and very subtle but effective combination of comedy and drama. Boogie Nights is one of those film that are worth waiting for even if you aren’t hardcore cinephile.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

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I didn't know anything about it, but if it was postponed due to lack of interest, it must have something that not everyone sees, thanks for the review :D

I like the movies of the time and it looks quite interesting thanks to your review.

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