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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.

Judd who?: The randy dudecom returns in “The Hangover”

Ed Helms ponders that age-old question of "Which came first, the chicken or the hangover?" in "The Hangover."

Ed Helms ponders that age-old question of "Which came first, the chicken or the hangover?" in "The Hangover."

“The Hangover” is a rarity these days, as out of place in Hollywood as William H. Macy in “Wild Hogs”: a rude, crude and unapologetically lewd man-boy comedy. Remember those? The movies where guys got drunk on Budweiser, staged wrestling matches in pools of KY, did every dumb and random thing that popped into their sex-focused brains? Since that Judd Apatow character came along, dudecoms have been in short supply.

Not anymore. In fact, “The Hangover” feels a little like a big fat “suck it” to Apatow and his minions. Gone is the talk of feelings, the heart-to-hearts, the squishy male bonding. In its place, director Todd Phillips (hint: he made “Old School”) throws, well, everything else imaginable, from a tiger to a stolen police cruiser to a squirrelly Asian gangster who delights in “you’re so fat” jokes – all framed in a flashback narrative. It’s a trippy approach that manages to be as consistently funny as it is reliably surprising. And where’s the action? Vegas, baby, always Vegas.

And since “The Hangover” is a Vegas movie, it must begin with a bang: Tightly-wound Stu (Ed Helms), rakish Phil (Bradley Cooper) and bearded weirdo Alan (Zach Galifianakis) wake up in their trashed hotel room still drunk with no memory of the bachelor party they threw for groom-to-be Doug (Justin Bartha). Doug’s nowhere to be found, but that’s not the only problem. There’s a stolen cop car, a very pissed-off tiger, a man-purse overflowing with $80,000 in poker chips, a pragmatic stripper (Heather Graham) looking for Mr. Right. Oh, and a chicken.

Time to zip up about how these pieces fit together; the whole point of “The Hangover” is the gradual reconstruction of the gang’s epic bachelor party. The flashback framing gives Phillips the chance to monkey with time and structure, but “Hangover” is no “Memento”; it’s hardly that cerebral. What it is is a cheerfully crass whodunit-of-sorts that gives the actors plenty of room to get their joke on. Admittedly, some do it better than others. Bartha’s missing for 90 minutes, so he means little; he’s just the catalyst. He’s too vanilla, anyway. (He’s been unimpressive since his turn as a mentally-challenged hostage in “Gigli.”) Cooper, with his creepily blue eyes and (what I swear to be) an I’m-hiding-heads-in-my-freezer grin, pulls the charming jerk card. That works here. Helms works his barely-contained Andy Bernard rage to great comic effect at every turn. He’s Happy Gilmore with the volume on 4, or a kinder, gentler Phil Weston. Pay attention to his “riddle me that” speech; Helms makes it one of the movie’s funniest moments.

But the rest of those moments belong to Galifianakis. His awkward, socially-stunted performance has so many critics wetting themselves you might be tempted to think it can’t be that good. It is. Alan’s a socially-frustrated goob who always says the wrong thing, who aims for wit but lands on stupidity. Galifianakis lets that awkwardness flower, blurting out things like “I wish I could breast-feed” or calling Roofies “rapies.”  Don’t look away; this is how great comedy careers are born.

And how great franchises are born. Can’t wait for “The Hangover 2: Trippin’ Balls and Nailing Chicks.”

Grade: B