Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Heather Graham, William H. Macy, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly & Robert Ridgely
Opened (LA/SF/NY/Chicago): October 17, 1997
Opened (major markets): October 24, 1997
Opened (wide): October 31, 1997
There is a kind of low frills, matter-of-fact narrative structure that has recently become a hallmark of many highly praised independent films.
It manifests itself in Billy Bob Thornton's lumbering drawl in "Sling Blade" and in the crumbling tract housing of "Secrets and Lies", and it permeates every frame of "Boogie Nights," a remarkable exercise in cinematic realism.
This film, a 20/20 hindsight look at the late 1970s through the glazed-over eyes of the porn industry, doesn't try to be clever or picturesque. It doesn't exploit, glamorize or condemn. It simply tells a compelling story about shallow, damaged people trying in earnest to gain any kind of respect they can find, even through salacious means.
Featuring surprisingly sharp performances from ex-rapper Mark Wahlberg as a novice porn star and Burt Reynolds as his mentor-director, "Boogie Nights" has been receiving adoring advance accolades from film festivals and the press that are almost justified. It is an engrossing character drama and masterfully made -- but not quite a masterpiece, as has been implied.
Largely an ensemble work -- with a gifted cast that includes Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy and Heather Graham -- the film spends big chunks of time with the unnaturally endowed and supremely untalented Eddie Adams (Wahlberg), a dejected, uneducated teenager who turns to porn because it pays better than bussing tables.
Recruited by Jack Horner (Reynolds), an assembly-line director who honestly believes he's building a legacy of quality, plot-driven porno, weak-willed Eddie becomes Dirk Diggler, porn's man of the moment, lasting just long enough to self-destruct in a cocktail of money, drugs and easy sex.
Falsely full of himself, Dirk leans on cocaine-addicted veteran Amber Waves (Moore), for support when his ego crashes. The mother hen to a barnyard of porn stars, she isn't so admired in her personal life, and is embroiled in an destructive custody battle for her son that provides the film's most emotionally naked moments.
Written and directed with an intuitive vision by film sophomore Paul Thomas Anderson ("Hard Eight"), "Boogie Nights" subtly makes the most of every frame. Swimming in the smallest details of period accuracy (be prepared for painful fashion flashbacks and a bounty of bean bag chairs), the movie nonetheless focuses tightly on its characters, who bare even more psychologically than they do physically.
Despite their oblivious, shallow personalities, "Boogie Nights" builds an intimate sympathy for all its characters by revealing the dreams they have abandon by becoming porn stars. For Amber it's motherhood. For Dirk it's the respect of his family.
For others it's far simpler. Heather Graham ("Swingers") plays Roller Girl, a child-like beauty who drops out of high school to ply the sex trade because she has convinced herself her body is worth more than her mind.
"Boogie Nights" has a constant under-current of tension stemming from the fact that none of these people like themselves. This tension explodes as the film moves into the early '80s, and the story splinters into several narratives as the characters pick up their lives and move on in different directions.
Despite its adult nature, "Boogie Nights" is rarely risque. Anderson is far more concerned with his characters' souls than their bodies. He turns the camera on the faces of the director and crew during on-the-set sex scenes, not because he's ignoring the temptation to titillate, but because the crew's reactions are far more interesting than mechanical sex.
"Boogie Nights" is the kind of movie that will become curriculum in film theory classes because it employs many of filmdom's favorite techniques -- the tracking shot, for example -- without being self-indulgent. It's not great fun or great drama, but it is great filmmaking.