“What can you expect when you’re on top, you know? It’s like Napoleon. When he was the king, you know, people were just constantly trying to conquer him, you know, in the Roman Empire. So, it’s history repeating itself all over again.”
I find it fun that Boogie Nights, an epic tale of the pornography industry in the late 70s and early 80s, was filmed by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most respected working directors. I’m reminded of the famous Roger Ebert quote: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” This is a film which glorifies the lowbrow, a seedy industry profiting off sexual gratification, and it immerses you into the lives of its heroes. It’s a film with a subject matter that may deter a lot of viewers, but its structure is a masterfully executed rise and fall which makes for one of the most gripping narratives you can find. It’s a film about greatness, and it’s also a great film.
Seventeen year old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a high school dropout working at a California night club in the late 70s. When he crosses paths with porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), he is swept into a career in the adult entertainment industry, taking on a new title: Dirk Diggler. The film follows Dirk as he rises through the ranks and becomes the dominant name in adult cinema. We’re also introduced to a whole slew of side characters chasing their own ambitions, including Dirk’s friend Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), boom operator Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and leading lady Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). These characters compliment Dirk’s journey, and their own interspersed narratives make for a complex ensemble to round out the film.
The first half of Boogie Nights is a whole lot of fun and games. Paul Thomas Anderson puts forward the mood of the disco era, the vibrant energy it carried. The film is visually impressive, with keen observance of the era’s fashion. However, the soundtrack is absolutely perfect. The film pulls a lot of familiar music, but each selection seems to weld itself seamlessly to the scene in question. The musical connections are often obvious, with the lyrics reflecting the situation of the scene, but more often it’s simply the feeling the song carries which matches note for note with the direction of the scene. These cinematic decisions help Paul Thomas Anderson lift his protagonist into a fantasy world of insurmountable glory, setting up his audience for a dark second act.
The shift into the ’80s seem to serve as a divider, a striking peak from which Dirk Diggler’s life only spirals downhill. I was reminded of a gangster film like Goodfellas. There’s a clear rise and fall dynamic where the hubris of the protagonist, and the mistakes he’s made along the way, ultimately result in his collapse. When Boogie Nights goes dark, it goes really dark. Whether you sympathized with the film’s characters or condemned them throughout the first act of the film, there’s no question that you’ll end up pitying them. The story is woven perfectly, beat for beat, and it even finds time to touch on the lives of its most minor of characters. The film is on the longer side, but the length feels necessary to properly wrap up all the stories it has crafted.
While Boogie Nights is “about” the porn industry, it’s really about people and their desires. From the moment Eddie Adams is kicked out of his home, we see him commit himself to greatness. Dirk Diggler is a rebirth, a new start, an attempt at reaching the top. You see this embodied in other characters as well, such as Don Cheadle’s character Buck Swope. Constantly ridiculed and in search of his identity, Swope desperately seeks an accomplishment to call his own: owning a stereo shop. One of the film’s greatest strengths is that even if a character gets little screen time, we know what they want. Characters have to want something above anything else, and that’s what makes for great conflict. Paul Thomas Anderson understands this, and it’s why Boogie Nights makes for such a powerful story.
There’s a lot more to say about this movie, but I’ll close on the notion that this is a film stuffed with powerful moments and difficult ideas. It’s one of those films that you finish and feel like you have to watch again to fully comprehend, something I hope to do in the future. It’s a dark display of emotion and longing with a goofy smile painted on its face. It’s a film that dares to let you in, pulling no punches, making it a masterful addition to the Paul Thomas Anderson canon.
Films Left to Watch: 898