No. 43: “Boogie Nights” (1997)

“You know, I’m gonna be a great big, bright shining star.” ~~Dirk Diggler

Watch enough Paul Thomas Anderson films — which won’t take a full day, considering he’s only made five major motion pictures — and a trademark starts to emerge. It’s not the long shots (he’s wonderful with those) or the use of the iris in/out technique (that too). What strikes us, and quite forcefully, is Anderson’s repeated focus on warped, unconventional family dynamics. “Punch Drunk Love” had Barry and his seven wretched sisters; “Magnolia,” the twin stories of Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge, who slowly poisoned their marriages, their children and themselves. “Boogie Nights” may beat them both, though, in terms of questionable family relationships for its emphasis on a clan of pornographers — actors, directors, producers — who cling to each other out of emotional necessity. Their real families won’t have them; no one else will, either, and so they love the ones they’re with.

This unorthodox sense of togetherness smudges the line between parental love and sexual love, especially in the case of porn stars Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). Freud could have a field day with the peculiar yet loving relationship these two people have. Unable to see her son, Amber has a hole in her heart she needs to fill with something. Cocaine passes the time, but she needs to be needed. And Dirk, a clueless kid determined to escape his own abusive mother, needs a surrogate.These two are a match made in heaven and also hell — they nurture each other, they fill gaps, but they also have a codependent relationship that’s headed nowhere good. More stable is Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, displaying actual depth and empathy), the porn director with a conscience who discovers Dirk bussing tables at a nightclub. “I got a feeling that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out,” Jack observes, and he’s not being crude. Jack Horner is a man with an eye for untapped potential. He’s also a man who wants to help a struggling, uncertain high school dropout make something of himself. He adopts a fatherly attitude toward Dirk, who finds makeshift siblings in fellow actors Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly, all childlike innocence) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham).

Remaining characters trickle in and out much like kooky relatives at a family reunion: Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), a nightclub owner/Don Juan in his own mind; Colonel James (Robert Ridgely), Jack’s financial backer with a disturbing, illegal secret; and gay boom operator Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman, agonizingly awkward), besotted with Dirk. There’s assistant director Little Bill (William H. Macy, brilliant as usual), whose reaction to his porn star wife’s (Nina Hartley) infidelity is a game-changer in “Boogie Nights.” Also intriguing is Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), who wants to give up his unfulfilling life of sex on camera, meet his soulmate and open a discount electronics store. Little details like that are the mark of a gifted filmmaker. And one thing Anderson, for all his skills behind the camera, never skimps on is the depth of his characters. He can draw impressive performances from actors — Graham, Reynolds and pre-“Departed” Wahlberg — not known for giving them. Even the characters we get fleeting glimpses of, like Thomas Jane’s arrogant Todd, Philip Baker Hall’s visionless financier Floyd or Alfred Molina’s whacked-out drug dealer, leave indelible impressions. Anderson writes “Boogie Nights” so that every person is concealing a story, and we get just enough of a taste of those stories to want more. Anderson backlights the characters’ tensions with his single takes (he holds when other directors would cave) and exquisite soundtrack choices, proving himself as good at illustrating eras and emotions with songs as Scorsese.

In the long list of thingsAnderson does well, there’s something else to tick off: merging multiple storylines into a satisfying conclusion. His endings are poetry, and the final minutes of “Boogie Nights” — shocking for MPAA in the ’90s, they prompted Reynolds to fire his agent and punch Anderson on set — is no exception. Anderson feels for his characters, and he gives them the kind of bittersweet adieus that sit with us indefinitely. It’s not what we expect, but it’s exactly what we need.

8 Responses

  1. That scene with Graham in the limo couldn’t have sat well with Reynolds, but it was a natural progression to the story.

  2. What an intense movie! Moore is totally brilliant, though I never fully understood all the love for Burt Reynolds… You’re right about Anderson, though – he certainly has a knack for lumping together some deep-seeded family issues.

  3. You’re dead on about the Amber/Dirk relationship. So interesting to be attracted to him physically but emotionally see him as a son.

    And also very right about Heather Graham. That was one heck of a performance.

  4. This is such a fantastic film. I think it is a prime of example of a film with en ensemble cast that really works. So often these ensemble cast films feel like they only ‘half work, because ‘so and so’ doesn’t get the right amount of character development or screen time. The ensemble cast is also a bunch of A-list stars. A remarkable achievement from Anderson.

  5. Fun, hilarious, fast-paced, and overall just a great piece of cinema. I never knew what their intentions were with this one, but whatever they were, they did a good job with it. Check out my review when you can!

  6. Interesting points about Anderson’s obsession with dysfunctional and wayward family dynamics. I’d probably say Boogie Nights was knocked off top spot by There Will Be Blood for me and my faves of his work, but it remains one of the best movies of the 80s. I love Juliane Moore in the film, she’s fantastic.

    • @ Luke — Moore excels at playing emotionally needy characters — the kind my friend Pompous Film Snob would say “has a vacuum in her heart.”

      @ edgar — The thing I like most about it is how every character, no matter how small, involves you. You care what happens to the little people that orbit around Dirk.

      @ Marshall + Dan — I really believe P.T. Anderson must have had a pretty dysfunctional childhood; if not, he has an astounding imagination. And in a way this dynamic shows up in all his films, from “Hard Eight” to “There Will Be Blood.”

  7. [...] M. Carter at the MoviesNo. 43: Boogie NightsSubmitted By: Bitchin’ Film [...]

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