If La Dolce Vita is a series of increasingly empty dawns, Boogie Nights is a series of increasingly empty parties until we finally arrive at Alfred Molina’s house and it’s clear to everyone that the party is over. Here is a movie about the pornography business that manages to be neither vulgar nor explicitly sexual, one that is sweet and sentimental but does not romanticize, it is moving and sad, uproariously funny, it earns it’s R rating but is would be hard to find it objectionable. Boogie Nights is a movie about the business of sleazy sex movies and its thesis is that everyone’s blessed with one special thing. At least that’s what Eddie Adams (Mark Walhberg) says near the beginning of the movie. And for him, that special thing is his prodigious member, tailor-made for the adult film industry.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights, has often been compared to Robert Altman, and there’s little doubt that Altman’s films, specifically the ones with large casts and overlapping dialogue, inspired Boogie Nights, just look at its eloborate opening shot that introduces around two thirds of the film’s two dozen or so characters, but Anderson’s strength as a writer (he also wrote the screenplay) comes from providing his characters with clear motivation. Everyone in Boogie Nights is working towards something. Eddie wants to be a star. Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), director and producer of skin flicks, wants to make a great movie, a movie with a story that will make people stay till the end, even after they’ve finished. Jack’s girlfriend and porn actress Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) wants to be a mother, ideally to her own son, taken from her in her divorce, but she will settle for the mostly parentless misfits that enter into Jack’s world. Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), a part time actor but full-time stereo salesman wants to open his own business. In the rest of the cast there’s John C. Reilly as Walhberg’s sidekick, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a a pathetic boom mic operator, Thomas Jane as a livewire good time Charlie, Heather Graham as porn starlet, and Luis Guzmán as a club owner with dramatic aspirations. There’s also William H. Macy, Ricky Jay, and Philip Baker Hall, as an assistant, editor, and financier respectively. There are two small roles that are aided enormously by the actors that play them. Joanna Gleason as Walhberg’s bitter mother and Molina as a loony drug dealer are better than the size of their parts but are exceptionally effective in their brief moments. Gleason and Walhberg in particular are able to create a terrifying power in a scene in which Gleason kicks Walhberg out her house. Note the shot of the neutered husband and father, listening to their fight in shame and sadness but unable to do anything about it.
The story is reliable, that of the rise and fall of a Hollywood dreamer, though in this case, it’s a San Fernando dreamer. Walhberg, the green kid, is discovered in the late 1970’s and is an instant star (of sorts, of course, he’s a big star in the porno industry), he changes his name from the average Eddie Adams to the otherworldly Dirk Diggler. He buys a garish house and car and decorates them about as tastelessly as possible. Diggler’s rise takes place during a time when Jack’s hope of making a worthwhile adult movie was legitimate. Porno’s were shot on film and exhibited in proper theaters. Ads for their release appeared in the paper right next to those for Star Wars and The Deer Hunter. But at the dawn of the 80’s the industry was moving to the cheaper videotape and the emphasis landed on quantity and not quality. At the same time, Diggler’s attention turns to drugs and he eventually severs his relationship with the parental Jack and Amber, and after failing at legitimate entertainment he hits rock bottom and returns to Jack in tears. It is difficult to resist Anderson’s sympathy for these people and their marginal existence. He doesn’t quite condone what they do, though he doesn’t condemn it either, and Boogie Nights is realistic in its portrayal of the consequences of the character’s choices. There is a heartbreaking scene late in the movie where Amber is denied visitation rights to her son. We’ve seen her be a good mother to the children in her life, namely Walhberg and Graham, but that’s completely contextual and we must concede that exposing a child to that world would be unacceptable. Still, we feel for her. More heartbreaking is when Cheadle applies for a loan and is turned down based on his acting past. “You’re not being fair!” he cries, in the film’s saddest moment. Much like The Godfather, Boogie Nights is told completely within its own world. The difference is that the mafia exists so that its members may play with different rules than normal society and people in the porno industry guaruntee that they wont even get to play in the game.
This was Anderson’s first film with a large studio budget (the music rights alone for the wall-to-wall hits on Boogie Nights’ soundtrack probably cost more than his first feature, Hard Eight) and from time to time the script would rather be funny than focused, which is unnecessary because there are more than enough laughs in Boogie Nights. The film has fun with reaction shots to Diggler’s “one special thing” and there are a number of them, none funnier than of a producer by a pool played by Robert Ridgely, he lingers on it for some time, with the funniest look on his face. We get to see it eventually but after that reaction, we don’t need to. Boogie Nights also plays around with some of the acting in adult movies and Julianne Moore delivers a great line in a sweet scene during Diggler’s first performance. That scene is a wonderful collection of detail and characterization and while it has the most bare skin of any other in the movie, there’s nothing erotic about it. A set of an office has been constructed in Jack’s garage (note the bicycle hanging on the wall behind a set piece). The cameraman distresses over some difficult shadows in the shot “There’s shadows in life, baby” Jack says revealing his aspirations as an artist and perhaps his laziness as well. Moore is playing a casting agent for a movie with Walhberg as a potential actor. They soon begin to have sex and the nervous Diggler is concerned with both his performance being sexy and that Moore enjoys herself. As they get it on, the crew observes it as if they are getting pickup shots of a door handle.
Boogie Nights is also a study in juggling tone. Overall, it’s a light movie but with some very heavy moments, none of which feel melodramatic or shoehorned. One of the first exchanges of dialogue has Guzmán’s night club owner saying to Amber “Not for nothing, honey, but you are the sexiest bitch here and I love you!” to which she replies. “Such a charmer!” I’ve never been able to figure out if Moore delivers that line sarcastically or not. The famous scene near the end involving a half-baked drug scam by Diggler and his friends at Molina’s house is the epitomie of mixed tones. It’s a tense scene because the stakes are high, so is Diggler so he’s not in his right mind, and the danger is real. Yet, the setting is ridiculous, Molina is cheerfully over the top and there’s a small man walking about lighting firecrackers and throwing them around. “Don’t worry about him,” Molina says. “He’s Chinese, I think.” Which doesn’t really explain why he’s throwing around firecrackers. Each bang accentuates both the danger and the ludicrousness of the moment.
Even the very opening of the film alerts us to the knee-jerk nature of the rest of Boogie Nights, as a weezy, jaunting waltz plays and then is suddenly superceded by the disco beats of The Emotion’s Best of My Love. Whether or not this was lifted directly from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which begins with a similar juxtoposition of music, I do not know. But it serves a different purpose (certainly, those two movies could hardly have more different aims), Lee’s use of Public Enemy is a call to action, to rail against the status quo represented by the jazzy tune that preceeds it. Anderson presents the pop music as a celebration; surely, simple joy will be hard to find for Dirk Diggler after he’s started down his path. The waltz, by Michael Penn (who has a cameo in Boogie Nigths as the suffering engineer of Diggler’s pop debut, “You Got the Touch”), is used again twice more, once when things are at the worst and during the calming, wonderful epilogue. For a movie that is loaded with hit music, it’s the use of its original score that I return to, none more than the extended scene of violence in the last third that is accompanied by a consistent and effective bell tone. Boogie Nights is a masterpiece and Anderson would apply his knack for clear motivation in his subsequent work, though none would be as joyous.