One of the main directors who’s work I’m not as familiar with as I should be is Paul Thomas Anderson. Despite his relatively small filmography I feel I’ve missed out on some great cinema through only watching There Will Be Blood and The Master. Thankfully, I’m now starting to rectify this and there couldn’t be a better film to start this than Boogie Nights, which is the best of Anderson’s films I’ve seen.
The film concerns Eddie Adams, a high school dropout working at a nightclub in the San Fernando Valley in the late 1970s. Whilst working, he meets up with Jack Horner, a very successful porn director who decides that Eddie would be a great lead for his films due to a combination of his youthful looks and his massive penis. After running away from home, Eddie moves in with Jack and becomes a full time porn star, changing his name to Dirk Diggler to break all ties with the past. Over the years he sees a great level of success, especially with a series of action oriented porn films, but in the 1980s, he develops a severe drug addiction which impedes his abilities for the films and leads to him breaking ties with Horner leading into a downward spiral of drugs. At the same time, Horner sees his creativity stifled as a new producer comes on board, ordering him to shoot films on video faster to make more money. We also see stories for the other characters Dirk encounters and how their lives have been declining in the 80s, particularly Amber Waves, who gets embroiled in a custody battle regarding her first marriage. Now considering that the two halves of the film have such wildly different tones, the optimism of the 70s, which all gets brought down in the 80s, it could have easily created a tonal shift that the film couldn’t recover from but that’s not the case here. Elements of the darker side of the industry get brought up throughout the first half so that, even after the main catalyst for the darker side in a scene set on New Year’s Eve 1979, the darker elements of the film in the second half feel like a natural progression of what was introduced in the first half. This isn’t a film that glamourises the porn industry, throughout it we see the difficulties that people face and the stigmatism that they face so when these all come to a head in the second half the gut punch of these scenes feels more natural. One thing that I love is the mundanity of shooting the porn films here. In other films, the shooting of these scenes would have been more over the top but here they feel really downplayed, with problems of the medium coming into play, such as having to change the reels and concerns over the budget, and all these scenes have no real sexuality to them, here the mundanity serves to make the whole experience more complex. If there is a problem with the plot it’s that some of the elements feel like they should have got a lot more time to make some of the scenes more impactful, mainly related to the custody battle Amber is facing.
The cast meanwhile adds to the environment of the film. I don’t think Mark Wahlberg has done a performance to top this one. The more naive side of the character at the start of the film and his frustration with his home situation mixes well with the optimism and joy he has with his success, a tour around his house providing a great contrast to his role at the start of the film. As the film goes on, the anger and jealousy Wahlberg shows gets more intense and by the end you feel so sorry for him for just how far gone he’s become. Burt Reynolds also does a career best performance as Horner. He clearly has a respect for the medium and the actors and desires to elevate the films he makes, making films people want to watch all the way through rather than just watch to pleasure themselves. As the film goes on and he has to shoot faster, cheaper and with less plot his despair over seeing the decline of his work is palpable. Julianne Moore meanwhile is great as Amber, her feelings towards her son, mainly her desire to see him being repeatedly denied is heartbreaking, especially when mixed with nurturing quality she brings to the character, particularly in the scenes she shares with Wahlberg and Heather Graham. Speaking of Graham, her work here is really strong having this sort of youthful innocence and charm, made clear through her not taking off her roller skates, and near the end, it’s clear she has some repressed issues that need to be released.
The rest of the cast is strong as well, I think this is one of the best casts I’ve seen in a film. John C Reilly does strong work as Dirk’s friend and co-star Reed, the friendship between the two coming across brilliantly. Don Cheadle is a lot of fun to watch in his scenes, showing the damage the industry does to the outside careers of people, the same being true for Luis Guzman, Thomas Jane and Phillip Baker Hall. Alfred Molina turns up for one scene and steals the entire film and Ricky Jay is great to watch for the deadpan nature of the character. William H Macy is great to watch, his performance being part of the reason why the tonal shift isn’t jarring, mixed with real life porn star Nina Hartley as his wife (although all I could think of when I saw her was A Midsummer Night’s Cream, see Kyle Kallgren’s review of it for Brows Held High to learn why). The only character that feels a bit off is Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Scotty. Don’t get me wrong, Hoffman gives a great performance but the character comes across a bit more creepy than intended and, after the big scene for his character, it doesn’t really get brought up again, I feel like the character could have been cut out and nothing would have been lost.
The technical side of the film meanwhile is excellent. Anderson’s direction is top notch, using a lot of excellent long shots (which even though he doesn’t admit it have some Scorcese in their DNA) and handling the tone of the film perfectly. This is best seen in the scene with Molina which is equal parts hilarious and intense, it’s a fine rope to walk and Anderson does it brilliantly. This also comes across well in the way the film shows Marky Mark’s funky bunch, initially only seeing the reaction shots which leads to a lot of great laughs. This direction is matched by excellent production design which nails the 70s and 80s aesthetic and is what makes the atmosphere of the film work so well, with this aided by the cinematography, mainly in the scenes showing the porn films Jack makes, which adds to the feel of the film. The soundtrack meanwhile is one of the best I’ve heard, each song adding to the tone of the film. None of them feel forced and, for a few scenes, the impact would be lost without the music. Some of the music moments in the film though have become retroactively hilarious because of other works the actors have been in, mainly the scene where Wahlberg sings The Touch. The scene in itself is great, showing the delusions that Diggler has over his talents, but has become more funny since because The Touch became famous for its use in The Transformers: The Movie and Wahlberg was the lead in the most recent Transformers film.
Overall, Boogie Nights is a great film. Whilst I think some of the characters aren’t written that well and some parts of the plot could have been utilised better, this is still a great look at the porn industry, showing the highs and lows therein, aided by great direction by Anderson and top notch performances, particularly from Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds.
My Rating: 4.5/5