The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: October 16 - 23, 1997

[Film Culture]

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Boogie Nights is a dazzler

by Gary Susman

BOOGIE NIGHTS. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. With Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Joanna Gleason. A New Line Cinema release. At the Cheri.

[Boogie Nights] Comparisons are invidious, but inescapable: Boogie Nights is the most stunningly accomplished, attention-grabbing movie by a sophomore director since Pulp Fiction. As impressive as Paul Thomas Anderson's first film, last winter's little noir Hard Eight, was, it offered no warning of the bravura achievement of Boogie Nights, a grand, comic epic about an unlikely topic, the porn-film industry of the late '70s and early '80s.

From his jaw-dropping, GoodFellas-like opening tracking shot through a disco (even more masterful camera work will come later throughout the picture), set to the exuberant sounds of the Emotions' "Best of My Love," to his pants-dropping, Raging Bull-like finale in the world-weary protagonist's dressing room, Anderson dares to one-up Scorsese, Altman, Tarantino, and any other film-geek icon you might name. He shares the ear of Scorsese and Tarantino for pop and their stomach for pulpy violence and Altman's way of using subcultures to satirize American life, but he has more empathy for his characters, even the irredeemable ones, than most filmmakers do, and his synthesis of narrative styles and formulas results in something original and strangely wonderful.

Boogie Nights is the allegorical story of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a 17-year-old busboy who is, um, endowed with a gift that takes him to the top of the porn heap. Discovered by porn auteur Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and rechristened Dirk Diggler, Eddie is the favorite son in Horner's ad hoc family, including the maternal Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), big-brotherly Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), and sisterlike Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who never takes off her skates, even during sex. All serve Horner's dream, in the heady days when porn movies like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door are winning over mainstream audiences, to make fuck films that are artistic. He's no more an artist than Ed Wood (as shown in a hilarious sequence about the shooting of a Horner opus), but as long as his movies make money, the cocaine and the jacuzzi bubbles flow, and the occasional casualties of too much fun can be ignored.

Rather less fun, the second half of the film chronicles the decline of Horner's dream and his stable. With the turn of the '80s, home video puts porn theaters out of business, and the cheaper new medium has Horner churning out crass porn flicks like sausages. Amber bonds more desperately with her soundstage kids as she loses all ties to her real child. Rollergirl explodes in pent-up resentment, as a fan discovers that his fantasy isn't all it's cracked up to be. And the heretofore sweet and naive Dirk lets success and drugs go to his head. He spirals down to the gutter, reaching his hellish nadir during a botched robbery at the home of a coke-fried drug dealer (Alfred Molina), in the most memorable of the movie's many comic-horrific set pieces (made more terrifying by the use of Night Ranger's awful power ballad "Sister Christian"). The bill for '70s hedonism comes due, but vice doesn't disappear; it merely stops flaunting itself in public, preferring to hide discreetly in the living room.

Anderson presents the '70s as the decade saw itself, without irony. His actors, especially Wahlberg, Reynolds, and Moore, wear straight faces and carry themselves with enormous dignity. (You've already heard it many times, but it's true: this is a star-making performance for the artist formerly known as Marky Mark, and a career-reviving one for Reynolds.) Like the cringe-worthy costumes and production design (even more dead-on and wince-inducing than for the Brady Bunch movies), the characters are unashamed of their tacky tastes and desires. Only when they discover shame and guilt are they cast out of paradise. Anderson tells both sides of the story with equal virtuosity and without flinching or moralizing. If there is any lesson in Boogie Nights, it may be that there is still pleasure to be had in giving yourself over to a dazzling storyteller.

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