Is there another filmmaker working today who has risen to such heights of critical acclaim on the basis of so few films as Paul Thomas Anderson? His four most-important films to date are “Magnolia” (1999), “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002), “There Will Be Blood” (2007), and the subject under discussion here, “Boogie Nights” (1997). They exhibit moments of beauty, grandeur, tension, excitement, humor, passion, irony, and sentimentality, while also displaying lengthy stretches of dull, fragmentary, often downright weird storytelling, much of it clearly meant for the very sake of its own eccentricity. Fortunately, of the four films, “Boogie Nights” holds up best.
In “Boogie Nights” writer and director Anderson basically created the mold in which he fashioned all of his later films. And like the rest of his films, “Boogie Nights” transcends its subject matter to touch upon much broader issues. Love him or hate him, it’s hard to dismiss P.T. Anderson.
Anderson uses the unlikely topic of the pornography industry in the late 1970’s and early 80’s to encapsulate an era, which in itself is an extraordinary and daring idea. Or not so daring if you consider how the lurid subject matter would attract the attention of moviegoers who couldn’t care less what Anderson was saying about the time period but only wanted the titillation. Fair enough; the film works on that level, too. Indeed, one of the film’s drawbacks is that the subject matter can easily overshadow everything else Anderson is trying to say, the metaphor submerging the very ideas it’s supposed to represent.
The place is the San Fernando Valley, Southern California; the time is 1977-1985. In 1977, so-called “adult” movie houses were flourishing throughout the country, but by the mid 1980’s home viewing on videotape would quickly put most of them out of business. The industry changed, just as the country changed from the permissive 70’s to the far more-conservative 80’s. Interestingly, Anderson may be suggesting that the open permissiveness of the 70’s simply went into hypocritical hiding in the 80’s, just as porn went from the openness of the movie house to the closed confines of the private home. We see these changes reflected in the characters and their lives in the film.
As in almost all of Anderson’s movies, the filmmaker uses a large roster of characters and an all-star ensemble of players in a Robert Altman-like arrangement of vignettes. If the individual segments don’t alway hang together, it’s part of the price we pay for the final product. These are characters living ordinary lives until they become involved with the adult-film industry; then, the allure of sex, drugs, celebrity, and money takes effect. These ordinary people actually begin thinking they’re real movie stars (which, of course, they are, if in a fringe area of the industry). A nobody can become a somebody with no more genuine talent than a pretty face, an attractive body, or a large appendage. The trouble comes when these people begin taking themselves seriously.
Among the many characters in the film, the one at the center is Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a young, naive high-school dropout whose primary asset is a particularly prodigious private part. He calls it his “gift,” his talent, and we see him break into the adult film industry because of it. He wants to be somebody, someone other than the stupid loser his mother has called him all his life. Naturally, he soon becomes a big star, changing his name to the unlikely “Dirk Diggler,” and success goes to head. We’ve seen that before, but Wahlberg and Anderson manage to sell it.
Nevertheless, even though Eddie may be the central character, it is his mentor and father figure, porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who stands out most vividly. Reynolds is a commanding presence in the film, and his patient guidance of his troubled stars creates a kind of extended family none of them ever knew. Jack’s cast members and crew seem to spend most of their life at Jack’s house in a continual party, with Jack always overseeing the crowd in a paternal and loving manner. Indeed, this might have been another wholesome “family” picture if it weren’t for the subject matter (the sex simulated and, surprisingly, not that much of it; so, not to worry on that count).
Supporting Wahlberg and Reynolds is a sterling cast, many of whom Anderson would use again in “Magnolia.” There’s Julianne Moore as Amber Waves, Jack’s biggest female star, a lady who has been in the business long enough to understand there are not a lot of prospects for the future when one’s age and beauty decline. Amber becomes a surrogate mother to at least one of the younger female stars, Rollergirl (Heather Graham), another high-school dropout looking for glamour, money, and excitement. John C. Reilly plays Reed Rothchild, one of Jack’s established porn stars, initially a rival and then a best friend of Eddie. Don Cheadle is a porn star with a “cowboy” look, but he’d rather operate his own hi-fi store. William C. Macy plays Little Bill, a poor schmuck whose wife (real-life porn star Nina Hartley) continuously humiliates him with her public sexual antics. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Scotty J., one of Jack’s crew who has a crush on Eddie. And Luis Guzman plays Maurice TT Rodriguez, a nightclub owner who says he wants to leave a legacy to the world; in other words, he wants to be in some of Jack’s films.
Also among the cast are additional names you may recognize: Micheal Penn, Robert Downey, Sr., Jack Riley, Melora Walters, Nicole Parker, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Jane, Alfred Molina, Veronica Hart, and many others. There is no lack of talent here, and it’s a shame that most of them get so little screen time, even in so long a movie.
Despite the metaphoric, multilayered story and the superb cast of characters, the usual shortcomings of P.T. Anderson’s films surface in this one, too. First, it’s too long. At over two-and-a-half hours, it wears out its welcome short of its conclusion. Second, the movie’s got so many stereotyped characters running around, the ensemble dilutes the movie’s message through sheer numbers. Third, the final act, the last forty-five minutes or so, devolve into over-the-top violence, a multitude of ironies, and eventually sentimentality. Things begin humorously in the film’s first third, turn serious in the middle, and become downright bizarre in the concluding third. The movie’s final shot will leave you in a gasp. That’s P.T. Anderson.
Just rejoice in the good. “Boogie Nights” has passion to spare. It never slows down. The energy is everywhere. The characters are odd, to be sure, but totally fascinating. And Anderson’s ability to juggle the interlacing story lines is a joy. The movie captures the essence of the flashy late Seventies as much as, say, “Saturday Night Fever” did, with all its bright, cheap, tawdry, flamboyant clothing and furniture and all the grand ambitions that the later Eighties would squelch. “Boogie Nights” is loud, gaudy, profane, thoughtful, and risqué; you can’t say it isn’t fun in its own exuberant way.
Warner/New Line engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec to transfer the movie’s original theatrical aspect ratio, 2.40:1, to Blu-ray disc. The first thing one notices about the high-definition picture is that it’s as often bright and clear as it is soft and subdued. Anderson appears to have used a good deal of natural lighting in the film, so not every scene looks as clean or distinct as some others. The next thing one notices is the transfer’s inherent film grain, which provides texture while adding a slight veil. Definition varies, too, from extremely sharp to somewhat less so; and black levels, generally strong, can also produce a small degree of murkiness in shadowy areas.
The film’s soundtrack, reproduced in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1, varies as much as the image, largely because Anderson chose to use popular music of the day in the background. Thus, the sound quality varies according to the quality of the recordings. Things begin well enough, with excellent dynamics and a fast transient response for quick percussive impact, but other sections of the soundtrack, especially ones with heavy dialogue, seem like (and probably are) ordinary monaural. Surround activity can be good when the need arises, evident early on in a nightclub scene, but then it, too, tends to vary with the music present, with only a few gunshots toward the end of the film standing out.
The extras, which cover the usual ground, begin with a pair of audio commentaries, the first with director Paul Thomas Anderson and the second with stars Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Luis Guzman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Mark Wahlberg, and Melora Walters. Following those items, we find “The John C. Reilly Files: Outtakes and Extended Sequences,” three segments totaling about fifteen minutes, followed by ten deleted scenes, almost thirty minutes, with optional director commentary. Then, there’s a music video, “Try,” by Michael Penn, also with optional director commentary.
The bonus materials wrap up with thirty-seven scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language, despite the keep case listing English, Spanish, and German; Spanish and German subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
If Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t make such scattered films, the content so disparate, the focus so vaguely expansive, they might all become genuine classics. We won’t know for sure for another forty or fifty years, but I have the feeling that people in the future will view them pretty much as people view them today–with a combination of admiration, respect, and hesitation. I also have the feeling that of his first four cinematic efforts, “Boogie Nights,” the most specific in its setting and content, may hold up best of all.