Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
The porn industry is a ubiquitous presence in the media landscape, especially during the 1970’s when the medium went through an era marked by financial prosperity that would later get it named The Golden Age of Porn. But how often do we think about the people behind these X-rated movies, the human beings who brought the smut to the big screen back in the day and your laptop screen in the modern-day world? For only his second feature-length movie ever, Paul Thomas Anderson decided to expand on both an idea and a name (Dirk Diggler) that originated in an earlier short film he helmed to create Boogie Nights, which may just be his peak as a filmmaker and God knows that’s a high compliment given how many great movies Anderson has made.
Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), on the surface, seems like a protagonist you’ve seen many times before, the scrappy kid everyone undervalues who dreams of doing something great with his life and ends up heading off to show business to prove he’s something special. For Eddie’s journey though, some key differences have been made from the typical depiction of this storyline. For one thing, Eddie’s struggles at home stemming from an abusive mother are more realistically rendered, which makes Eddie’s tearful proclamation to his mother (who repeatedly yells at her son that he’s stupid and won’t amount to anything) that he will make a name for himself all the more heartbreaking to watch. After that kind of experience, there’s no going back to his old life and considering how troubled it was, that’s very much a good thing.
Where exactly will Eddie make a name for himself though? Why, in the world of XXX cinema! Prolific director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who has dreams of making an adult movie so captivating on a storytelling level that people watch it for more than just self-pleasure, has asked Eddie to come act in some of his movies and now Eddie decides to take up his offer. Eddie, now donning the name Dirk Diggler for the silver screen, is introduced to the various members of Jack Horner’s gaggle of actors & technicians, including Horner’s wife Maggie A.K.A. Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Eddie’s soon-to-be best bud Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham).
Early on, we get introduced to the various members of Jack Horner’s social circle at a big pool party and one can already see there are issues with how these various people interact with each other. Everyone is trying to score something from another person, whether it be drugs, a role or sex or some combination of all three. There is no concern for anyone beyond themselves and this mindset has been so ingrained into everyone’s psyches that it’s not even a malicious act at this point, it’s just how they act. Even a young woman overdosing on cocaine isn’t enough to get people to exert empathy, only the prospect of cleaning up this mess quickly and quitely is on the minds of the people who find this dying person. It’s clear from the get-go that, underneath all the girls, glitz and glamor, is a self-absorbed atmosphere that can only lead to ruin.
Laying that atmosphere out in the open from the get-go doesn’t make the heavily flawed characters a pain to watch though. On the contrary, Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay hopscotches between a wide array of figures that Eddie meets as he enters the porn biz who are thoroughly engaging to watch. Reed Rothchild (who has been told he looks just like Han Solo don’tcha know) is a total hoot thanks to John C. Reilly’s committed and frequently intentionally oblivious performance while Julianne Moore is totally transfixing as the quietly tragic Maggie. Her character is a phenomenal representation of the sense of tragedy that makes the characters of Boogie Nights thoroughly entertaining even in their most unsavory moments.
Each of the characters in Boogie Nights want to upend the odds and get themselves a better life. Whether it’s Reed’s desire to be a magician, Horner wanting to imbue real cinematic craft into his pornographic movies or especially Maggie’s desire to be reunited with her son, these characters are all people who wish to exceed expectations and lead top-caliber lives. But their own self-destructive tendencies (namely drug addiction) keep getting in their own way. They’ve got the will to change their lives, but not the drive. Though it’s got tons of humor to its name and a lively pace, the best moments in Boogie Nights are the quietly tragic ones where characters realize their ambitions can’t fit into reality, most notably Scott J. (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) breaking down after his romantic advances on Eddie are rejected and a separate scene showing Rollergirl and Maggie bonding over their personal familiar woes while doing cocaine.
Nestling the combination of tragic pathos and well-realized characters underneath a feel-good partying exterior is a move Paul Thomas Anderson pulls off with grace as both a writer & a director. He’s especially good with working with his incredibly well-casted actors, who make the ensemble cast of characters work like gangbusters. There really isn’t a dud performance to be found here from leading man Mark Wahlberg, in the role that put him on the map as a leading man, being dynamite as Eddie to character actors Luis Guzman & Alfred Molina doing memorable work in supporting roles. It’s Julianne Moore who walks away with handily the best performance here though as she portrays Maggie’s internal pain in such subtly masterful ways that emotionally devastate you. A scene where she fights for custody of her son serves as ample demonstration of this as just a facial expression from Moore proves to be as powerful as her depiction of her character breaking down in tears immediately after the custody battle.
Similarly memorable from Boogie Nights is the soundtrack which is littered with memorable 1970’s/1980’s tunes. Movies heavily utilizing pop tracks from those two decades are a dime-a-dozen, but Boogie Nights make some great unique choices for which songs to use (Sister Christian is an especially good example of this) and the way they’re utilized is also key to why the soundtrack works so well. For instance, I would have never ever imagined Fooled Around And Fell In Love being set to the type of scene Boogie Nights sets it against, but it’s a brilliant and hilarious move, just one of many remarkably craft moves this 1997 feature makes that help make it as entertaining as it is. Another one of those moves is ending the story on a melancholy note for the characters, with a few members of the cast making progress as people, but others (like Maggie, her final moment in the film showing her just staring into a mirror in resigned sadness is thoroughly haunting) still left stranded in their own unfulfilled ambitions. What a perfectly realistic somber note to end the story on. Frequently cafard character introspections have rarely been as compulsively riveting as they are in Boogie Nights.