Boogie Nights

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Paul Thomas Anderson

REVIEWED: 11-10-97

Until the 1970s, the decade commemorated as the ne plus ultra of hedonistic excess, the law made no distinction between serious, sexually frank films and out-and-out grindhouse fodder. The exhibitors of movies as aesthetically disparate as Carnal Knowledge and Deep Throat faced the same obscenity charges in landmark court cases; as far as civic bluenoses were concerned, there was little difference between Rita Moreno disappearing discreetly below Jack Nicholson's waist and Linda Lovelace declaring a war of attrition on her gag reflex. But when the dust settled, a bold new era in screen sexuality shone ahead. No more cornball lies. No more smarmy "coded" behavior. The possibilities were as endless as Harry Reems.

So how are filmmakers benefiting from those freedoms today? We now have the year's second movie about pornography that's safe enough to attract an R rating. Boogie Nights, like The People vs. Larry Flynt before it, is filled with vicarious nostalgia for the anything-went spirit of the 1970s, a spirit it replicates in costumes, lighting, a wall-to-wall soundtrack of toothsome oldies--everything but firsthand experience. For all its zip, its marvelous performances, and its many dazzling moments, Boogie Nights promises an epic sweep and a depth of insight into the sex trade that it doesn't deliver. To enjoy Boogie Nights for what it is--a splashy, facile, undeniably entertaining sideshow of extraordinary energy and lingering melancholy--you have to tune out all the hype about what it isn't. The movie's virtues are solid enough that it doesn't need to be trumped up into a masterpiece; that kind of puffery only sets viewers up for a fall.

In his first feature, the smashing character study Hard Eight, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson showed remarkable self-control, paring away any gimmickry that might distract from his performers and his story. For his prior restraint, Anderson has rewarded himself with Boogie Nights, a celluloid Fibber McGee's closet packed to bursting with five-minute tracking shots, speeded-up dollies, rapid-fire montages, movie parodies, dance numbers, and gut-wrenching mayhem. All of it is lively; much of it is impressive and affecting. Shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit, who employs the overexposed look of washed-out sex loops and the lurid hues of Saturday Night Fever, Boogie Nights paints a surprisingly genial portrait of the '70s skinflick biz, focusing on the career path of a 17-year-old dreamboat, Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), who washes dishes by night in a disco.

Innocence and experience Mark Wahlberg looks to a brighter future in Boogie Nights. Photo by Phoebe Sudrow.

Eddie's prospects are few until adult-film auteur Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) discovers his hidden talents--namely, a 13-inch dick and a stallion's stamina. Before long, Eddie has rechristened himself Dirk Diggler, has taken the sex-movie world by storm, and has joined Horner's makeshift family. The porn goddess Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), who drowns the heartbreak of a bitter custody battle in sex and coke, becomes his new mom; his brethren include the black cowboy Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), the boisterous Reed (John C. Reilly), and the lost Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who takes off her skates for no man.

The camaraderie of these misfits gives Boogie Nights a disarming sweetness; to watch the movie, you'd think the adult-film industry was a home for lost orphans. Anderson, a phenomenal and promising talent, treats his shallow, self-deluded characters with the compassion of a ringmaster for his fellow carnies, even as he records the pathetic ironies and poker-faced absurdities around them. In the foreground, a woebegone cameraman (William H. Macy) carries on a technical conversation. In the background, his wife (Nina Hartley) cuckolds him before a crowd of onlookers.

But Anderson's script lacks the specifics about the industry and its relation to the time that would give his story the epic quality he seeks. Apart from some Ed Wood-style high jinks on the set, he's disappointingly vague about the filmmaking process, the hierarchy of actors and actresses, the money the actors are getting, the fans who support the trade, or even how the performers deal with sex in private. (See Susan Faludi's bristling article in The New Yorker last year for everything Anderson missed.)

When the movie arrives in the 1980s, as video corrupts the industry and Dirk discovers coke, it takes a sharp turn into violence that has been interpreted as Anderson's farewell to the innocent hedonism of the 1970s. To me, it just looked like Anderson's big chance to restage the last 45 minutes of GoodFellas, a movie whose brazen techniques look like so much fun that every talented new filmmaker has to get them out of his system. His set pieces are undeniably inventive, especially an intricate bit of crosscutting that begins in mutual pick-ups and ends in mutual bloodshed. But after the sharp character-driven truths of Hard Eight, the hocus-pocus of the second half starts to seem repetitive and unsatisfying, like a four-course meal of cotton candy.

Boogie Nights isn't as gallingly timid as The People vs. Larry Flynt, a movie that blared its defense of First Amendment freedoms even as it hid its naked actors behind bedposts. But the realistic violence and stylized sex aren't exactly a leap forward. In its original form, Boogie Nights was three hours long and carried an NC-17 rating. Frankly, a movie about the '70s porn industry shouldn't be rated anything less, not if it has an ounce of conviction. But an NC-17 is the kiss of death with exhibitors, and as a consequence, Boogie Nights is now a half-hour shorter. In all but a few brief moments, the intercourse is coyly obscured with demure camera angles and the kind of prop placement Austin Powers used as a joke--the sort of silliness audiences in the 1970s hoped would be replaced by a new ease and candor.

In a film where characters make their living and express themselves through sex, cutaways and strategically placed blankets seem not only inadequate but dishonest. At least Anderson got to keep his justly famous last shot of Dirk's unfurled manhood; it's a hauntingly absurd image, and it ends the movie with morose finality, a mood only enhanced by Michael Penn's eerie incidental carnival music. Boogie Nights is an incendiary display of talent, and at its best it achieves the pop grandeur of the disco faves on its overloaded soundtrack. Still, after all its funky sound and polyester fury, I prefer Anderson's Hard Eight to his soft 13.

--Jim Ridley

Full Length Reviews
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