Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most distinct voices in modern film, and I doubt that anyone would diminish the scope and power of his vision. There Will be Blood and The Master are so well photographed and told, while Magnolia tells a surreal, yet human tale. Before all this, however, there was Boogie Nights, Anderson’s break out hit from 1997. Not only was this the start of a career for Anderson, but also for Mark Wahlberg, who was known more for his rap music and work as a Calvin Klein model. To say the least, Boogie Nights is an epic film that hearkens back to the earlier films of Martin Scorsese, but it also stands alone as a singular visionary tale with P.T. Anderson’s style written all over it.
In the late 1970s, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is one of the leading names in the pornography industry, after directing numerous successful porno films. His real dream, however, is to hook the audience with the story instead of the sex. One night at a club, Horner stumbles upon Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a young guy with a seemingly non existent future and some really special talents. Adams is soon recruited by Horner and changes his name to Dirk Diggler, a name that will soon be known throughout the porn industry as the greatest male actor to grace the screen. Along with his best friend, Reed Rothchild (John C. Riley), Diggler takes the world by storm, but is soon introduced to a lifestyle of hard drugs and decisions without consequences. This takes a toll on his life, and the lives of everyone around him, and by the time the 1980s hits, it becomes time for Diggler to make some serious decisions about who he is and who he wants to be.
From the very first shot, I knew that I was about to watch a masterfully shot film. The first three minutes is a long take that starts on the marquee of a theater, travels through the street, and finally into the nightclub where we meet Jack Horner and Eric Adams, soon to be Dirk Diggler. I’m a real sucker for long takes like this, and it reminded me very much of the famous long take from Goodfellas. Boogie Nights is made of quite a few of these long takes, with another in particular happening about halfway through the movie, which switches gears into overdrive. Other than that, this is just a really nice movie to look at. The outdoor scenes are very bright and really set the tone of the success that Dirk and his friends are feeling. Once the 1980s hits, a lot of the scenes are shot at night which also signifies a massive tonal shift. The way Anderson shoots this movie isn’t just artistic and technically proficient, but it also helps tell the story, and that’s awesome.
While this is a story about Mark Wahlberg’s character, it’s important to note that it also tells the story of many other characters who come to be associated with Diggler. Other than Burt Reynolds and John C. Riley, Boogie Nights also stars Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I would much rather look at this movie as an ensemble pieces about a time period and the consequences of that time period, with the rise and fall of Wahlberg’s character as a catalyst. Anderson pays such close attention to period detail that it’s hard to argue this movie isn’t about the period in which it takes place. Each character has a different problem or situation that reflects a part of that time, and it gets even worse when the 1980s arrive and they have to come to terms with their past choices.
I keep mentioning the 1980s like it’s some ominous presence looking over the sun drenched horizon of the 1970s, and that’s sort of what it is in this movie. It also marks a point where Anderson makes some poor storytelling choices. The first half of the movie that takes place in the 1970s is note perfect, and I don’t have single complaint. Things take a turn for the worse right when the 80s arrive. This is when the fall of the characters begin, and it’s handled well for the most part, but some of it is just way too over the top and kind of pulled me out of the movie. There’s a really powerful sequence during this part that is followed up by a striking moment with Don Cheadle’s character. This scene alone is really cool and odd, but fitting it in after some really disturbing stuff was like sticking a Spider-Man comic into the Book of Revelations. This scene is really what I’m talking about, and it pulled me out of the movie so much that I just kept seeing all of the over the top moments as individual scenes that could have been turned down a few notches to make a better fit. These are really only a few scenes in a movie that’s two and a half hours long, so it doesn’t hurt the movie too bad, but I felt that I had to mention it.
Boogie Nights is simply a movie that can not be ignored. I consider Paul Thomas Anderson to be one of the best film makers working today, so seeing the movie that kick started his career was a real treat. This film is more than the pornography industry in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a film about the kinds of decisions that were made by a kind of people that led to a decade of serious trouble. It’s a rise and fall story with a time period that sort of act like characters themselves. This isn’t exactly a perfect movie, but I’d recommend Boogie Nights to anyone and everyone.