“Boogie Nights” is Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, and it’s not a close call when compared to the rest of his catalogue. Critics loved “There Will Be Blood,” but that film is too long, painfully boring and grossly overrated, saved partly by Daniel Day-Lewis’s typically memorable performance.
On the other hand, “Boogie Nights” is even more ambitious and provides a much more enjoyable experience as PTA explores the seedy world of the porn industry in the late 70s and early 80s. Like all his movies, the film is visually spectacular as PTA recreates the tacky world of the period, while introducing us to a series of memorable characters caught up in the wild world of porn. Unlike many of PTA’s other films, however, “Boogie Nights” also tells a coherent story that skillfully weaves together the lives of his characters and holds the audience’s attention through the end.
I recently re-watched the film for the umpteenth time and came away with several impressions:
Comeback Role for Burt Reynolds
The casting decisions here are flawless, and it all starts with Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner, the porn director who wants to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. Jack lives in a large, mid-century modern house with a large pool and bar in the back. It’s perfect for parties and porn shoots and just big enough for some of his regular actors and actresses to live there. Burt was 61 when he shot this film, sporting a salt & pepper hair piece and beard. He’s older and looks distinguished but still has sex appeal and loads of charisma. Jack serves as a sort of father-figure to the younger actors and actresses and Burt’s understated and nuanced portrayal of Jack is critical to this film. With that context, it was quite shocking to learn that Burt hated working with PTM and disliked the film.
The plot follows the rise and fall of a young, well-endowed kid who dreams of being a star. Mark Wahlberg does a fine job playing Eddie. He’s a sweet and friendly kid working as a dishwasher in a club in the Valley when Jack discovers him. He then takes on the stage name of Dirk Diggler, joining the band of misfits starring in Jack’s films.
Compelling Female Characters
The female characters in this film aren’t just pretty faces and nude bodies used to titillate the audience. Of course, the actresses are beautiful, and we get realistic glimpses of how their jobs involve having sex on film, but their stories are an essential part of Dirk’s journey and the world created by PTM.
Julianne Moore is brilliant and fearless in her role as Maggie. It’s a crime that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her performance. Maggie is a veteran actress in the adult business and lives in Jack’s house, taking on the role of “mother” to the younger talent. Meanwhile, her chosen profession and drug use has led her husband to win full custody of their child.
Heather Graham plays the beautiful Rollergirl, a high school dropout who enthusiastically embraces her role as the all-natural blonde bombshell of porn. Her nude scenes as she strips down to have sex with Dirk for the first time is an obvious fan favorite. Then the camera cuts to Jack as he calmly and approvingly watches his young talent have sex on the couch in front of him.
Rollergirl’s story takes a dark turn later, offering another example of the damage this industry does to some who get involved. Meanwhile, others fare better and find a path to escape the porn business. Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker) finds a husband who runs an auto parts store, while Jessie (Melora Walters) gets pregnant with Buck (Don Cheadle) along with a lucky break in life.
Plenty of Laughs
Along with telling a coherent story, PTM injects a healthy dose of humor into the characters and story of “Boogie Nights,” making it come across as less pretentious and self-indulgent than his other films.
Dirk has a sweet disposition until fame and drugs take their toll, but he’s an uneducated idiot. He’s sidekick in Jack’s porn empire, Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), is only slightly less clueless. Their “dumb and dumber” routine throughout the film leads to some hilarious scenes, starting with their first interaction by Jack’s pool. Their cringe-worthy scenes at the recording studio are priceless.
Don Cheadle’s Buck is also one of the funnier characters in the film as he ditches his black cowboy look for a ridiculous Rick James wig. Philip Seymour Hoffman is hilarious as Scotty every time he’s on the screen.
Rich Supporting Characters
There are so many layers to this film, and practically everyone in the supporting cast gets the opportunity to steal a scene or two with a memorable performance. Robert Ridgley is brilliant as The Colonel, the creepy financier of Jack’s film. The legendary Philip Baker Hall delivers an unforgettable scene as his character Floyd explains to Jack how the porn industry will be moving to videotape.
PTA expertly creates the look at feel of the time period, punctuated by a fantastic soundtrack featuring pop, disco and soul hits from the late seventies and early eighties. One soundtrack was issued at the time of the film’s release, with another released the following year.
Several clips stand out. We’re introduced to Scotty with the playful “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate as Philip Seymour Hoffman brilliantly and awkwardly reveals his man crush on Dirk when he meets him by the pool. Watch the scene here.
Later we’re introduced to more characters at the New Year’s Eve party at Jack’s home with the opening guitar riff from the iconic “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n’ the Tears. The song kicks off as Philip Baker Hall makes his entrance as Floyd in his powder blue suit and runs into The Colonel. The song continues in the background until we get the classic entrance of the Todd Parker character played by Thomas Jane. Enjoy the scene here.
One of the more bizarre scenes of the film has a young and skinny Alfred Molina singing along to “Jessie’s Girl” by Rock Springfield as Dirk and his clueless friends find themselves in a dangerous situation. The film could have gone off the rails here but PTM pulls it together and makes it all work.
PTM wraps things up in a neat bow at the end, making this by far his most enjoyable and compelling film.