While the dream of the Great American Novel may have vanished with Prohibition,
or at least the 1980s, the dream of the Great American Movie is still fresh
in our minds. Not twenty years ago it seemed as though the world of cinema
was rotten with potential, if not actual, greatness. Titans like Altman,
Scorcese, Kubrick, Coppola, and Malick strolled proudly in the venal nest
of Hollywood, not to mention the horde of unwashed European auteurs massing
at the gates.
Raw cinematic talent seemed almost commonplace (at least that's what my elders
tell me) and then came Star Wars and the 1980s, and the great ones
toppled or vanished, returning only rarelysometimes to renew their
myth, more often to destroy it.
But the taste of greatness is kept in our mouths by video and cable, though
there's nothing to wash it down with. We still go to the movies every weekend,
pay for the ticket, sit in the darkened theater, and hope. Then we come home
and watch Nashville, Taxi Driver, or Badlands and stare at
these relics like Egyptians gawking at the pyramids, wondering what has been
With Boogie Nights, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, wants us
to believe that maybe nothing has.
Anderson announces his intentions in the stunning opening sequence, borrowed
from Altman, who borrowed it from Welles. In a single sweeping shot, Anderson
takes us out of the eternal suburbs of Los Angeles and into a magical, glamorous,
body-hugging polyester-dressed world of a disco nightclub. And here is where
Boogie Nights beginsin the world of late '70s pornographic films.
The movie charts the twisted ride from the golden age of film and disco to
the dark days of video and Reagan.
In this marginal world Anderson finds the themes that stake out the territory
of The Great American Movie: youth, celebrity, sex, family, sex, pride, betrayal,
redemption, sex, and death. Anderson tackles them with a sprawling, Altman-esque
flairhe works with a diverse ensemble cast and multiple story lines,
but at the heart of the movie is the story of Eddie Adams, a preternaturally
well-endowed young man from the suburb of Torrance.
Anderson makes good use of Mark Wahlberg as Eddie. Somehow he manages to
trick Wahlberg out of his adolescent tough-guy posturing and into a truly
touching naiveté. And while Wahlberg may not be Anderson's Al Pacino,
he proves himself to be a much better actor than any reasonable person would
If Boogie Nights is responsible for launching a strong career for
Wahlberg, it should do even more impressive things for Burt Reynolds. Reynolds
plays silver-haired porn director Jack Horner with an understated confidence
that Gene Hackman could learn a lot from. Reynolds is the anchor of the film,
the calm center around which whirl the strange young lives of the cast of
Together, Wahlberg and Reynolds make it easy to get inside the world of adult
movies. With few exceptions the characters in the movie are just simple people
who want to live the American dream of stardom, but whose only talent is
being able to have sex while people watch. It is perhaps Anderson's greatest
credit that he rarely allows the movie to snicker at these basically dumb
people, and he never allows us to judge them.
Boogie Nights is filled with great performances, especially the one
by Juilianne Moore, who plays Amber Waves, the matriarch and principal star
of Horner's films; Heather Graham who plays porn ingenue Rollergirl; and
John Reilly as Reed Rothschild, Eddie Adam's sidekick.
Despite the power of the performances, Boogie Nights begins to lose
some of its steam two-thirds of the way through its almost three-hour running
time. In portraying Eddie's fall, Anderson turns to clichés that he
had so adroitly avoided in the rest of the film. For while Altman may have
influenced the structure of the film, much of the action and pacing are clearly
inherited from Scorcese. But in Boogie Nights the staccato punch of
a shootout is a little depressing. The violence feels...not gratuitous, but
mandatory, as though Anderson were observing some rigid rule of the third
act: There Must be Gunplay.
As the movie starts to wrap up it becomes clear that some of the story lines
Anderson juggled so brilliantly in the beginning have less and less relevance
to the end. Indeed, it comes to seem as though one or two could be cut completely
with little or no effect on the rest of the movie.
Nonetheless, Anderson deserves a big reward for even trying to make a movie
this good. If Boogie Nights doesn't quite sate our appetite for The Great
American Movie, it still marks the emergence of a talent that should be exciting
to watch grow and a brilliant flash of color in the cold, rainy days of