Boogie Nights (1997)

D: Paul Thomas Anderson
S: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore

Though overlong, this comic epic about the life of a porn star in the 1970s and 80s has enough good natured satire and workmanlike moral dramatics to hold together most of the way to the end. It charts the story of well endowed Mark Wahlberg, a bus boy who comes to the attention of adult film director Burt Reynolds. He gradually makes his way to the top of a doomed profession just before video ends the party and ends up turning tricks for a few dollars in a world that doesn't remember him. Though curiously avoiding any mention of AIDS, the film details the descent from free love and good time disco parties and pool side hot tubs of the 1970s to the crass and empty marketing machine populated with embittered egomaniacs and murderous cocaine fiends in the early 1980s. This moral fable often threatens to become routine, and is distended in the latter stages, but takes in a great many of the basic questions one might have about the motivations and mentalities of the characters it chooses to focus upon and is enjoyable to watch for most of the running time.

On the whole the film is easy going and effective, with a refreshingly direct and not unwise attitude to sexuality and to the retro-chic worship of the 1970s so prevalent in 1990s cinema. Anderson manages to deal tastefully with a potentially censor-enraging subject, and with not undue moral wrist-slapping, escapes the dread 'exploitation' label which damned the world upon which it is based. But it is still capable of delivering a good time for the attuned,with plenty of witty and wise jabs at the pretensions of people and society, and eventually, despite the plethora of storylines and characters, comes to a not undeserved happy ending. These characters deserve to escape the ravages of reality which sometimes assail them, and the film concludes with a joke at the expense of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull that leaves you smiling for all kinds of reasons.

On the acting side, Wahlberg has finally found himself a perfect role in the hilariously named Dirk Diggler. The character's combination of clueless blundering and raw ambition suits the actor well; and not requiring a performance of any great magnitude, he holds the film with relative ease. More challenged by far is Burt Reynolds, who turns in a terrific performance as the porn director who hopes to make pictures the audience have to stay to see the end of, but who is eclipsed in his moment of triumph by his own Frankenstein's monster. Julianne Moore is somewhat more wired as his long time lover whose drug habits have kept her from her biological son and made her a surrogate mother to the extended family of actors and technicians who populate Reynolds' playboy mansion. All of the supporting cast are on target, and the film features some of the best ensemble acting this side of L.A. Confidential. That it focuses on so many characters is both a strength and a problem, requiring a good deal of screen time to resolve but allowing plenty of breaks in the narrative for reflection and development.

Boogie Nights is not the best film you're likely to see in your lifetime, but it continues the pop postmodernism of Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction in an affable form. The questions it raises regarding sex and society are neither profound nor insightful, but they are memorable and pointed all the same. Particularly effective is the scene with Reynolds making an undignified video vérité in the back seat of a Limo which goes horribly wrong and reminds the participants of the choices they have made in their lives. With a kickin' soundtrack and plenty of retro vibes, the film will also appeal simply on the level of spectacle, where it is best received. Boogie Nights is fun the way the seventies and the porno industry probably never really were deep down (check out The Ice Storm for a different take on some of the same subject matter from the same year of production), and though it is not so stupid as not to acknowledge this, it does eventually wrap itself up more like an episode of The Love Boat than Mean Streets.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.