Boogie Nights September 1, 2015
Though set during the final years of the Golden Age of Pornography, you won’t find yourself getting turned on by the sensational Boogie Nights. It’s about the world of erotica, but is, unsurprisingly, hardly erotic itself. It looks at porn not only as a business but also as an act of human nature a handful of untalented citizens choose to perform on camera simply because they don’t have enough self-confidence to do anything else with their lives. Giving up the cherished virtue of intimacy is no problem — we’d be doing it anyway, they tell themselves as they slowly but surely get asphyxiated by the deluge of sleaze that takes over their lives.
One such individual is Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a high-school dropout who works as a nightclub busboy while his alcoholic mother (Joanna Gleason) berates him for being a loser without a future. So he considers himself lucky when he’s noticed by porn producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, giving one of his finest performances) and is taken to San Fernando Valley to begin a quick-footed career. With his youthful wiliness acting as a front for his well-endowed persona, he becomes an instant sensation, going by the glorious stage name “Dirk Diggler” in the process.
Like regular fame of the Old Hollywood sort, Eddie is enchanted by his newfound life: drugs are at his beck-and-call, women kiss the floor he walks on, and he, only a few months into his crude career, is labeled as a star comparable to John Holmes, winning more Adult Film Awards than anyone else in the industry.
But to live under such a filthy psychological roof can only do harm — termites have to come around sooner or later — and Eddie, despite his original satisfaction, finds himself continually disjointed from reality, the drugs soon becoming too much, the women too much, the attention too much. It isn’t long before Boogie Nights begins to turn into The Rise and Fall of Dirk Diggler; if it weren’t for the happy-ish ending, maybe that title would have stuck.
A film with the plot of Boogie Nights might sound vulgar, but, as the second film of the now sought-after Paul Thomas Anderson, it is anything but: it’s a character study comparable to the fast moving epicness of Altman’s Short Cuts or Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. It travels quickly from black comedy to drama to black comedy over and over again, looking at the porn industry through both a satirical light and a deeply serious one. We can laugh-and-point all we want at its fixtures’ self-important realities, believing that having sex for a living is really a talent; but we can also look in horror as their world soon evaporates as their cocaine adoration becomes a problem, as arousal is no longer much of a possibility, as the mere dropping of their real name is able to destroy what they’ve come to know about themselves.
Anderson’s direction and writing is so monumental because it is able to find the humor and the darkness in the grimy situation, all the while maintaining a nonjudgmental handle on the icky setting. He doesn’t see his characters as objects like the people watching a porn film do — he rather looks at them as desperate people who acted hastily in their youth and are forced to endure a lifetime of pain for that initial agreement. Whether they choose to become a porn mainstay or a porn drop-by is up to them, but the decision to appear in the first place will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
We see this as Eddie loses his place as the 1980s make their way into porn and he dissolves into piles of drugs, as the maternal Amber Waves (a terrific Julianne Moore) finds herself in the midst of a custody battle as her past marriage catches up to her sordid present, as the doe-eyed Rollergirl (Heather Graham) eventually realizes that dropping out of high school wasn’t such a good idea after all. Most heartbreaking is when Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), pregnant wife in hand, leaves porn and decides to start a business; but as he’s asking for a loan, he is denied the money because of his long-ago mistakes.
Boogie Nights seems to climax left and right as reality soon sets in; it’s so brilliant because it experiences life through Eddie’s youthful eyes, originally unassuming but, finally, damaged. The film is initially warm, inviting, and sun-soaked — but every moment afterward, the industry loses the honeymoon magic of its first few days. Anderson’s lightly maintained satirical eye during the first act of the film is luminous, and as he descends into off-kilter grit later on, it feels like a natural progression. The bold first ending, which sees the protagonist and a couple other coke-headed losers attempt to swindle a playboy out of $5,000 for coke (which is actually baking soda), is unpredictable and explosive, matching the fickleness of the rest of Boogie Nights. It pools together every mood Anderson introduces us to during its 155 minutes.
Take away the porn angle, and Boogie Nights would still be a standout ensemble character study. Anderson doesn’t rely on the gimmick of onscreen faux intimacy — he is more interested in the effect it has on the people who devote their lives to giving a true physical connection up for money. An early, funny scene, where Eddie makes his debut alongside Amber, is just as sad as it is funny: between takes, Amber coos compliments to him like she’s his mother, as if she’s praising him for a soccer win, an academic triumph. It’s funny because audiences see the scene as sexy, the performers as a job, and we, as voyeurs, guffaw at the sheer fakery of porn. What’s sad, though, is that the performers don’t see the toll committing such acts will have on them in the future, that audiences think that what they see on screen is real. Thankfully, the world Anderson concocts makes Boogie Nights the furthest thing from cheap. It’s the real deal. A-