Everyone has one special thing.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Except the sex is strictly part of the “acting,” and the rock and roll has been replaced by disco. The drugs remain in copious quantities.
As a preface, if you think it’s easy to write something original about a critically acclaimed film when every other critic has had a three-year head start, I’d like to see you try.
I had heard quite a bit about Boogie Nights, and it came highly recommended by several friends. Recently I finally had the nerve to rent it at my local Blockbuster. My main reason for renting it was to give Paul Thomas Anderson’s directing a test before I invested three hours of my time into sitting through Magnolia. I’m glad I did, because now I think I’ll have to pass. Boogie Nights hit quite a nerve, but not exactly the one I thought it would. For a movie about the porn industry, I didn’t find it that titillating (perhaps because there’s only one fleeting shot of Heather Graham), and in the end I didn’t find the movie all that rewarding other than as an exercise in pretty camera work.
If I had to compare Boogie Nights to any other movie, thematically it most closely resembles Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Both films are tragedies dealing with the rise and fall (ironically, both due to drugs) of a man within a sordid industry. For Ray Liotta’s character in GoodFellas, that industry was the mob. He rose within the ranks of the Mafia, until he turned to selling drugs to make some extra money. He fell victim to his own wares, and his increased paranoia and sloppiness led to his falling-out with the mob and his capture by the government.
In Boogie Nights, Mark Wahlberg (The Basketball Diaries, The Big Hit, Three Kings) plays Eddie Adams. He’s a teenager who knows he has a gift: his giant schlong. At his nightclub job, he meets Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds — Deliverance, Smokey And The Bandit, Striptease), a director of “adult films.” Jack introduces Eddie to Amber (Julianne Moore — Nine Months, The Big Lebowski, Magnolia) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham — Swingers, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Bowfinger), who gives him a taste of porn-film coitus. Needless to say, Eddie likes what he sees (and experiences); it’s a chance to use his “gift.” Under the stage name Dirk Diggler, he is a star from the second his “torpedo zone” is shown on film.
As time goes by, Dirk becomes more self-important. He freely indulges in the decadent lifestyle around him, and dabbles in any drug his friends put in front of him. On a particularly nasty high, he fights with Horner, and the director fires him. Now out of the porn business, he has to find some way to get money to buy cocaine. His friends try to talk him into duping a rich guy into buying a large bag of baking powder. The deal goes south, and Dirk barely escapes with his life. Later, he is beaten by some thugs, and goes running back to Horner with his tail between his legs. End of story.
It is obvious that Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights, has a great love of filmmaking. The visual style of the movie was practically the only thing that kept me watching. Anderson seems to be a great fan of the tracking shot. The movie opens with a five-minute shot that follows Jack and Amber into a club and introduces us to every major character as the camera moves gracefully through crowds of dancing people. Another shot moves around people at a poolside party, rests on a young lady, follows her into the pool and under the water, only to emerge to listen to a conversation. Anderson also likes to frame shots in unusual ways. There’s a scene in a diner with Jack, Amber, Dirk, and Rollergirl around a table. Instead of focusing on the person talking, he chooses to focus on the person sitting next to them. The effect seems to be like a poorly framed pan-and-scan shot. It’s weird, but interesting. The best choice, however, is how Anderson chooses to, uh, handle Dirk’s considerable manhood. We only see people’s reactions to it for the length of the movie, until finally we are “treated” to a shot of Wahlberg’s prosthetic trouser snake. You’d think after the build-up it would be a kick, like the striptease at the end of The Full Monty, but it’s not.
P.T. Anderson may have flair, but he doesn’t realize that the story is overwrought, far too long, and lacks focus. The ensemble cast is top-notch, but there are too many characters to keep track of or to care about. There’s Bill the cameraman, played by William H. Macy (Fargo, Air Force One, Mystery Men). His wife is boinking everyone but him, and finally he kills her, then himself in one of the few on-screen gunshot suicides I can recollect. (Please, write to me if you can list others. I know of Full Metal Jacket, Eraser, The Devil’s Advocate, and Fight Club.) Macy is a great actor, but he’s not given much to do other than look or sound pathetic. There’s Scotty, another crewmember, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Scent Of A Woman, Twister, The Talented Mr. Ripley). He worships Dirk, and eventually comes on to him at a party. Again, Hoffman is a very talented actor, but he is relegated to background whimpering for most of the movie. My favorite was Buck, the African-American porn actor/stereo salesman, played by Don Cheadle (Out Of Sight, the upcoming Mission To Mars). Buck is completely clueless about stereos. Let me give a sample of his sales pitch, and tell me if you’ve heard something like this at your local Circuit City. “I have this unit at home. But, I’ve got it modified with the TK-421, which is a bass unit that basically kicks in another two, maybe three quads when you really crank. Let me put another eight track in so you can get a better idea what I’m talking about.”
The movie is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic. The image is flawless, save for occasional moiré patterns caused by the tacky ’70s clothing patterns. Colors were nicely saturated and do not bleed at all. Flesh tones, oh so important in this movie, are accurate (except for Burt Reynolds, but the court suspects it is due to midlife overuse of tanning beds). Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Dialogue occasionally became lost in the fervent boogie fevering of the soundtrack, but I think that was the director’s decision rather than the fault of the disc.
Boogie Nights is part of New Line’s Platinum Series, so it will come as no surprise that the disc is loaded. First up is a commentary track by P.T. Anderson. I tried listening to it, but I have to admit I gave up after about forty-five minutes. Not once did he say anything about the things I was interested in (like why he chose to film the diner conversation like he did), and he seemed so damn full of himself and his abilities that it was unnerving. Nine deleted scenes are included. Frankly, I’m glad they were cut because they would have added nothing to movie other than bloat — and it’s already bloated. (Well, the extra scene of Heather Graham would have been welcome.) Extensive cast and crew biographies are also included. What’s interesting about them is that biographies of the characters are included. It’s a nice touch, especially in a movie about actors. A music video, “Try” by Michael Penn, is included (with optional director’s commentary). Funny, I don’t remember the song from the movie, but Anderson must have directed the video because it’s mostly long tracking shots. Finally, you can jump to the scenes in the movie where the hits of the disco era are showcased. If you’re like me, the best scene is the one accompanying “Brand New Key” by Melanie. The scene gives new meaning to the lyrics “I’ve got a brand new pair of roller skates, and you have a brand new key.” (Geez, what were my wife’s parents thinking when they named her after THAT singer? But then, who am I to talk? My name’s Michael Jackson.)
I really wanted to like Boogie Nights, but in the end I only liked the look and soundtrack, not the content itself. Returning to the parallels to GoodFellas, Scorsese knew how to draw you in to the story, and you at least felt some connection to the characters. In Boogie Nights, there are so many characters and so few real glimpses into their heads that I couldn’t bond with any of them.
I thought it was a good movie, just a little overrated.
If you liked the movie more than me, it is feature-packed and would make a great addition to your collection. For everyone else, it’s worth checking out, but your enjoyment may vary.