It's the '70s. Sex is safe. Polyester and leisure suits are in. Disco's hot and adult movies are chic. Director Paul Thomas Anderson pulls us into this world in Boogie Nights and gives us a privileged, behind-the-scenes glimpse at the adult film industry.
In 1996, Anderson made his feature film debut with Hard Eight, a powerful examination of the gambling sub-culture in Las Vegas. His sophomore effort, Boogie Nights, shows Hard Eight wasn't just a fluke and announces Anderson as one of the major filmmakers in America.
Burt Reynolds stars as "exotic pictures" director Jack Horner. Jack is a dreamer. He wants to make movies where the stories--not the sexual couplings--keep the people in their seats. With his main star, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), he has made a good, profitable living, but he wants something more. That's when he sees Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a good-looking busboy at the local discotheque: "I got a feeling that beneath those jeans something wonderful is waiting to get out," he says to Eddie.
Eddie is a bit of a dreamer also: "Everyone's blessed with one special thing," he says and he wants to use his talent to the fullest. Eddie's talent is sex: he's good looking, he's hung like a horse and he' blessed with legendary stamina. In other words, he's the perfect adult movie star.
Boogie Nights charts Eddie's rise to the top and his ultimate downfall, and while the movie deals with some seamy subject matter, the movie never becomes exploitative. Director Anderson keeps the focus on the small group of actors and filmmakers that Jack Horner has assembled, and he shows how the group functions like a family. Amber is divorced and she can't see her child, so her motherly instincts are turned toward her fellow actors Eddie (who has now changed his name to Dirk Diggler) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham). Eddie comes from a dysfunctional family (his mother says, "You're a loser and you'll always be a loser!") and the surrogate family he finds in the adult film industry gives him a sense of purpose.
Boogie Nights doesn't sugar-coat its subject. It gives us a shockingly blunt portrait of cocaine-fueled parties and casual sex. Yet behind the movie's seamy exterior lurks a sad story of lonely people trying to survive.
Boogie Nights threatens to become conventional and predictable in its second half as it charts Eddie's fall--where the scenes meant to shock us frequently become contrived (such as Eddie's foray into male prostitution). But for the most part, Anderson delivers plenty of surprises, such as the funny sequences where Eddie and fellow actor Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) try to record a rock'n'roll record. Anderson also stages an incredible climactic sequence where Eddie and Reed try to make some fast cash by selling cocaine and end up trapped in the living room of a drugged out business man (Alfred Molina) who sings along to Rick Springfield records while showing off his revolver. This scene in particular masterfully combines jarring sounds (firecrackers explode throughout the scene, setting Eddie and Reed on edge) and claustrophobic, swirling visuals.
If Burt Reynolds ever has a chance at an Oscar, this is it. He's not alone, though. Boogie Nights is filled with outstanding performances. William Macy gives a sad-but-funny performance as an assistant director who bottles up his pain. He has absolutely no control over his wife, who screws other men right under his nose and then tells him "You're embarrassing me" when he finds her screwing in public at a party. Philip Baker Hall turns in a creepy performance as an adult film producer who says "It doesn't have to look good" while urging Jack Horner to shoot on video.
Boogie Nights is one of the finest movies of the year and a stunning sophomore effort from director Paul Thomas Anderson.
[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]