Released to limited fanfare in 1997, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights managed to turn a tale of porn and lovable outcasts into the breakout moment for the writer/director, who has since gone on to become one of the most influential American filmmakers of his era. Following up his gritty, underrated debut Hard Eight, Boogie represented an enormous leap forward for Anderson – even with some detractors who viewed it as Goodfellas light. Seen a couple of decades later, however, any connection to the gangster masterpiece feels closer to praise than criticism, as Boogie was one of the few able to capture the energy and spontaneity brilliantly pulled off by Scorsese. Funny, insightful and technically outstanding, Boogie Nights not only stands out as one of Anderson’s best achievements but remains one of the great movies of the 1990s.
The opening of Boogie Nights wastes no time sending us careening into the swinging club scene of the late-1970s, twirling us down into a seedy local hot spot while “Best of My Love” blares on the soundtrack. Beneath the glitz of the dancefloor, we slide into the back of the restaurant, where we meet doe-eyed teenager, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). At the time, Wahlberg was still mostly known for heading Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch but also had a few credits to his name, as long as you included bit parts in The Basketball Diaries and Renaissance Man. But despite limited exposure as a leading man (Fear), Anderson saw the heart and soul of his film about a slow-witted porn star coming to fame at the end of an era. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t long before Eddie ditches his suburban life in Torrance to join Jack Horner’s (Burt Reynolds) gang of misfits and toss-aways, taking the name Dirk Diggler to complete his transformation. And because it sounds cool.
But even with the flashy opening, Anderson doesn’t take long to point out that he has a lot more up his sleeve than mimicking the Saturday Night Fever chapter of American night life. After the club closes, we soon see the bittersweet hidden lives of our characters. A flailing mother (Julianne Moore) pretending she has a lawyer who can get custody of her child back. A tired cinematographer (William H. Macy) whose wife openly cheats on him with strapping youngsters. A socially awkward actor (Don Cheadle) who tries to moonlight by selling stereo equipment, but fails miserably because he’s too hokie to function, and also a few years too early for the ‘80s.
Although a lesser movie could have been made about hyped up drama surrounding the San Fernando Valley porn scene, Anderson also slows it down while offering a series of terrific comedy sketches that flesh out the characters. When John C. Reilly’s energetic sidekick, Reed, meets Eddie poolside at Jack Horner’s house, we realize that we’re not eavesdropping on the conversations of neuroscientists as they try to impress each other with their workout regiments. Then you have Macy, who has to go through torturous conversations about the technical qualities of an upcoming shoot, all while his wife puts on a live sex show in the backyard. Overseeing it all is Jack, played by Reynolds as a fatherly figure who provides the only real constant that many of the characters know.
But despite a clever plot involving the transition to the age of the video tape, Boogie Nights is never really about what happens next – something that holds true for Goodfellas, too. After all, just about anyone could predict a third of the way through that Eddie/Dirk wasn’t going to ride into the sunset after cementing his johnson in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Instead, Anderson strings together an impressive stretch of memorable scenes that take us further down the rabbit hole with Dirk and company. Beneath the well-coordinated production shoots, we see the impossible paradoxes of pornographers who are incapable of escaping the isolated world they have created for themselves.
Yet what’s most impressive about Boogie is the strength of its ending. While other films like Blow, also a Goodfellas retread, run out of steam trying to recapture the energy of the opening act, Anderson pulls together a home stretch capable of being darkly funny, tragic and gut-wrenching – often at the same time. By the time we’re with Dirk on his ill-conceived drug-related heist, with “Jessie’s Girl” filling in the background, we realize that Dirk is approaching his rock bottom, yet his plight has become so absurd that it’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Though Anderson is more than capable of playing a scene straight, Boogie, like his other films, is at its best when a darkly funny subtext sits just below the surface.
It’s also hard to ignore the sheer talent that seamlessly worked on Boogie. Much of the credit goes to Anderson for obvious reasons, but the cast is a perfect blend of chameleon character actors that make it all possible. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Moore, Cheadle, Reilly and Macy all deliver well-rounded and important performances that fill out the quirky personalities behind a porn shoot. In crucial scenes late in the film, Thomas Jane, Philip Baker Hall and Alfred Molina drop in for memorable turns of their own. Despite nearly killing Paul Thomas Anderson on the set (not literally), Burt Reynolds even delivers a resonating performance as an aging film director on the verge of irrelevance. Not to be outdone, Wahlberg manages to breathe life into a character who could have sounded like Derek Zoolander in the wrong hands, showcasing a range of talents that few outside of Anderson saw by the mid-1990s. Thanks to a handful of iconic scenes, a wealth of memorable characters and a masterclass in creative camerawork, Boogie Nights is a lot more than just a romp into 70s porn jokes, and presaged the rise of an auteur just coming into his own.