Film: Boogie Nights
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.
The more I watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, the more I think he was raised on the work of Robert Altman. Like Altman, his films seem to hold too many characters to be contained within the story, Magnolia certainly had enough stars for three films, and the same is true of Boogie Nights Anderson seems to thrive in the ensemble cast atmosphere, and he also seems to use a lot of the same people over and over. About half of his cast from Boogie Nights shows up in Magnolia, for instance.
Boogie Nights is different in many ways, though, because in this film, all of the characters don’t have to come to one point of convergence, because they already know each other. In some ways, it feels like a film of a younger screenwriter/director, because there is a lot less to juggle here in terms of pacing and maintaining various stories. However, much of what Anderson does in his later work is first attempted in this one.
Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a high school dropout who works at a nightclub owned by Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzman). One of the frequent guests of the nightclub is Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a pornographic filmmaker. Eddie has a couple of talents in which Jack is interested: he’s extremely well-endowed, and he’s capable of performing continuously. It isn’t long before Eddie has had a falling out with his mother, left home, and become Jack’s newest star, working under the stage name Dirk Diggler.
And we get to meet the rest of the cast of thousands here. Dirk’s frequent co-star is Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), and the stable of females includes Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham, so named because she always wears roller skates), Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker), and Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Walters). Also making an appearance here is Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), who tries and sometimes succeeds at a sort of cowboy/Western persona.
Working on the films with Jack are Little Bill (William H. Macy), who’s wife frequently has public sex with other men; The Colonel James (Robert Ridgely), who we discover later has a thing for child porn; Kurt (Ricky Jay), who works the camera, and Scotty (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is gay and has a massive crush on Dirk. All of these lives intertwine continually through the film, often tragically.
The story is really about the rise and fall of all of these characters, predominantly Dirk, although they all rise and fall as one throughout. Dirk starts his adult entertainment career on top, and has a number of years of essentially pure success, as do his fellow actors in Jack’s stable. But as time goes on, the industry changes, moving away from film and x-rated theaters and into videotape and home video productions made on the cheap with amateurs. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, is pretty much constantly coked to the gills, and so when everything goes to smash, it smashes hard.
The moment it goes to smash, in fact, is brilliantly choreographed. It happens at a New Year’s Eve party heralding 1980. We learn at this party that Buck unsuccessfully tries to reinvent himself. We learn that amateur performers and videotape will be the wave of the future. Scotty tries to kiss Dirk, which freaks Dirk out quite a bit. It’s also right at the stroke of midnight that Little Bill walks in on his wife one time too many, shoots her and her current sex partner, and then turns the gun on himself.
What follows is a straight crash into the gutter for almost everyone, and true to the sort of long and continual montage that Anderson likes, we see all of these characters hit bottom at the same time. Dirk coked up and kicked out of Jack’s films, resorts to essentially prostituting himself for cash, but is so messed up on various substances that he can’t perform and gets himself beaten for his troubles. Jack is forced to make no-budget videos, pimping out Rollergirl to random guys on the street, and when someone gets in the limo who remembers her from high school, things get ugly. Amber, thanks to her career in porn and past convictions, loses all visitation rights to her son. The Colonel James gets busted for child porn and thrown in prison. Only Buck walks out of his unscathed. Unable to secure a bank loan for his dream of opening a stereo store, he is the only survivor of a failed convenience store robbery, and walks off with the cash.
And then things really hit bottom. One of Reed’s friends (Thomas Jane) comes up with a plan to rip off a drug dealer named Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina). He doesn’t tell Reed or Dirk that he’s actually planning to rob the guy completely, and everything goes to hell. This is the true bottom for Dirk and Reed. The film ends on something of a return to the beginning, with everyone a little older and a little wiser, and in some sense relieved to be where they started.
As with Magnolia, which I watched a couple of weeks ago, the performances here really help carry the film. These are great performances all the way around, with not a weak one in the bunch. Anderson also liberally spiced the film with actual adults stars, both current and former. Little Bill’s wife, for instance, is played by Nina Hartley and the judge at Amber’s custody hearing is Veronica Hart. It adds an odd touch of authenticity to the proceedings.
I like this film a lot. It’s ugly and prurient and the sex is rarely attractive, which is exactly how it should be. It is, after all, about an exploitative industry, and the film has that sort of ugly and raw feel to it. There’s a touch of the grindhouse here, and that only makes the film work even more. Boogie Nights is the film that put Paul Thomas Anderson on the map, and with reason. It speaks to his level of talent that his follow up films have lived up to this coming out party.
Why to watch Boogie Nights: It’s poignant and raw, funny and scary, brutal and great.
Why not to watch: Think of something that would give you an R-rating. It’s here, many times over.