Boogie Nights (1997)
The most epic and legitimate thing that’s ever happened to porn.
Boogie Nights is about a High School dropout growing up in 1970s California whose life as a small-time night club prostitute of sorts is changed forever when he’s discovered by the biggest director in the porn industry and taken under his wing. So he runs away from his broken home, starts a new life with his new “family” of porn stars, changes his name to Dirk Diggler, and quickly becomes the Marlon Brando of banging chicks on film. For a while there, everything’s looking up for the kid and there’s no sign of stopping, but then the ’80s come around and absolutely everything starts going to shit.
Ain’t that the truth.
These days, Paul Thomas Anderson is absolutely no joke. You’ve got this, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and his magnum opus of milkshakes and oilmen, There Will Be Blood. Yeah, he’s been gettin’ it done for a while now, but all the same, I really have no idea how this beast of a movie came off the heels of his low budget, ho-hum debut, Hard Eight. Like upgrading from a Honda Civic to an time-traveling DeLorean in one year.
Honestly, look at all the names that are tagged up there. It’s a fuckin’ cornucopia of A-listers, and better yet, a number of them are even giving the best performances of their careers. I probably won’t be able to give each and every one of the folks in this cast their due, but the scope, the vision and the number of heavyweights who came out of the woodwork to be a part of this are all a huge leap from Anderson’s humble beginnings and it’s amazing the kind of substance he whips up considering the industry he’s working with.
The first time I saw this back in High School, it went clear over my head. As far as I was concerned, porn was porn and making it seem like anything more than sex and money shots was a hopeless endeavor to set out upon. But after seeing this again and realizing that it’s more about the characters and porn as a metaphor of the times than Anderson trying to get the masses to reach some mind-blowing epiphany about the art of knocking boots on camera, I got it. It’s kinda like figuring out what it was I liked out about Forrest Gump in that regard, only with less Dr. Pepper and way more orgies.
And Anderson really is something else behind the camera. So many incredibly well-structured long shots that jump from character to character to character without skipping a beat and gets the audience completely invested in everything that’s going on, some great montages that range from totally groovy to a Debbie Downer that gives the “ass to ass” finale in Requiem for a Dream a run for its money, just one of those movies where the director’s involvement in every aspect comes off as palpable. Man, if more folks like Anderson were making porn 40 years ago, if more folks cared about the story they were telling in same way he does here, let me tell ya’, Ron Jeremy would be winning Oscars.
So as far as the porn aspect is concerned, Anderson makes it work for two reasons: it’s rarely taken seriously, and when it is, it’s actually pretty meaningful. It’s a tribute to a time when sex was more celebrated than objectified and how that outlook disintegrated with the passing of a decade, but even in its glory days, Anderson’s not making any illusions about how laughably bad porn was back in the day aside from all the sexing and such. The fake pornos he creates are freakin’ hilarious, the acting is absolutely terrible and it’s a great send-up of something that was already unintentionally hilarious to begin with. Actually ends up getting pretty depressing and grim once it gets into the ’80s, but up until then, hilarious. Can’t think of a better approach to take when you’re trying to make a mainstream movie about porn, actually.
But anyway, the cast.
In one of his first big screen debuts, Mark Wahlberg plays our little porn star that could, Dirk Diggler. On the one hand, Diggler does allow him to play to his strengths as everyone’s favorite Calvin Klein underwear model, but aside from that, he’s surprisingly good for someone who definitely didn’t have a whole lot of acting experience under his belt. It’s great how eager and green behind the ears he is in regards to the direction his life is heading in, how he’s always practicing kung-fu in the mirror and how he’s just a genuinely nice kid who couldn’t be happier to make new friends, win awards for having sex, and to be part of this new life that’s so far away from his old one. Makes the contrast between his the darker periods of his career that much starker, and Wahlberg really manages to pull it off. Doesn’t hurt that he’s got one bang-up record career going for him, too.
Burt Reynolds is also perfect as our porn mogul of the hour and Dirk’s surrogate father of sorts, Jack Horner. Heather Graham absolutely gives the best performance of her career as Horner’s biggest starlet, Rollergirl; Julianne Moore is fantastic as Dirk’s surrogate mother of sorts/debut co-star, Amber Waves; and John C. Reilly is fucking great as Dirk’s sidekick/shadow, Reed Rothchild. Like I said, there’s a crap load of noteworthy actors here, far too many to sum up without boring you all silly, but trust me, they’re all out of sight.
Although the best part about all these characters is that none of them fall by the wayside. Every last one of ’em have their one little plot line going on, they’re all really interesting and very much play into the big picture, and they’re all given their due even though this many characters would likely be the downfall of most movies. For Chrissakes, superhero movies can’t even handle more than two villains let alone a dozen different supporting characters who all have developing arcs from beginning to end. With that being said, that one aspect is what I loved most about this movie. It really does feel like a tight-knit family and the porn ends up becoming a backdrop to a crew that’s far more interesting and genuine than their line of work.
Boogie Nights is one of those movies that I feel should probably be a 9 and probably would if I had been born two decades earlier and could relate to what these characters were going through in regards to the sign of the times. If I had the same connection to Dirk Diggler as I did to Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love, this would have easily been a 9. All the same, there’s a ton to admire and appreciate here, I love the fluid progression and digression of the story as it transitions from the good time, weed-fueled days of the ’70s to the cocaine crazy nights from Hell of the ’80s, it’s far more engrossing and impressive than a movie revolving around porn had any right to be, and I very much dig why so many people flip over this movie. There’s a lot more to write about here than I already have, this is one of those things someone could probably write a thesis on, but that’s as much a justice as I can do it. Truly epic. Not even kidding.
And how about that final shot? Some note to end on, huh?