Boogie Nights is so well-made, so stunningly made–I’m not even thinking about Anderson’s wonderful, lengthy steadicam sequences, I’m thinking about Philip Seymour Hoffman alone in his freshly painted car–it’s hard to think about anything else while watching it. The omnipresent soundtrack–Nights is a combination of American Graffiti (the prolific use of songs), Goodfellas (the way music is used to move a scene) and Saturday Night Fever (the general feel of the first hour… and look for the Staying Alive reference in the film’s second half)–the soundtrack draws so much attention to the way the film looks, it’s almost like Anderson is telling the viewer the story doesn’t matter too much. It matters a little–the audience is supposed to be horrified by somethings, laugh at others, dismiss others (the way the overdose scene is handled, for instance, isn’t so much sickening as it is amusing)–until everything changes.
The first half of Boogie Nights introduces the characters and spends a lot of time amusing the viewer. Save the sequence with Joanna Gleason as one of the worst screen parents in history–and the abuse Heather Graham endures in high school–the first half of the film is almost always upbeat. When Don Cheadle’s boss makes fun of him for wearing a cowboy outfit… yeah, the viewer’s supposed to be sympathetic to Cheadle… but also be aware the cowboy thing is dumb.
There aren’t any smart principals in Boogie Nights. Arguably, Burt Reynolds plays the film’s “smartest” character… but he’s not particularly bright. Cheadle, Mark Wahlberg, especially John C. Reilly–these are dumb guys. It’s hard to tell if Julianne Moore’s den mother was at any point intelligent–even as the film starts up with her, she’s nosediving into a suffocating drug dependency. Wahlberg and Reilly’s bromance is hilarious and engaging and it’s kind of amazing how much time Anderson gets away spending on it. Essentially, it’s just treading water in terms of an overall narrative, but Boogie Nights is so perfectly produced, it doesn’t matter.
At the halfway point, Boogie Nights makes a drastic turn. Nothing good happens for a long, long time. Bad things happen over and over. Part of the characters’ joint stupidity is believing in their own rhetoric–the scene with Cheadle getting denied for a bank loan (everyone else in the film, if Anderson gives them enough time, understands the principals’ delusions) is devastating. Cheadle gives the film’s best performance, in one of the film’s only truly sympathetic characters (Anderson basically only rewards two characters and Cheadle is one of them). Anderson takes the inverse of Verhoeven’s Robocop. Instead of tossing the people into the burning pit first thing to garner concern, Anderson makes the viewer like the characters with comedy (and a knowing appraisal of their intellectual limitedness), brings everything negative to the fore, then roasts them until they’re sweating humanity. And he almost gets away with it.
In the end, Boogie Nights comes up with a workable, loopy philosophy and, mostly because of the filmmaking and the torture he’s put the characters through, Anderson gets away with some of it. It’s not a complete success (he drops Moore once her story gets too difficult), but it works. Except–and I remember this from the theater, not from the DVD–not getting to see Reynolds’s face when he embraces Wahlberg (because of the resolution) hurts the scene.
There’s a lot of great acting–Reynolds is fantastic, as is Reilly. William H. Macy is great in his small part, as is Ricky Jay (especially when they’re together). Moore’s good, but her character’s too big for the part she has in the film and there’s chafing. Wahlberg’s solid in the lead role. He’s kind of perfect for it, because he’s so great at being a dimwit. In smaller roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Thomas Jane and Alfred Molina are amazing–especially Jane, who rattles off some great Anderson dialogue better than anyone else in the picture. Luis Guzman’s awesome.
Boogie Nights has a lot of friction of its own, in terms of what Anderson’s doing. Is the film most honest during the Cheadle scenes or the Hoffman scene in the car… or is it most honest when Anderson’s just executing a perfectly constructed scene. It’s a stunning film, but the narrative lacks. It somehow ties Anderson’s hands, like he can’t act contrary to the formula.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Michael Penn; production designer, Bob Ziembicki; produced by Anderson, Lloyd Levin, John S. Lyons and JoAnne Sellar; released by New Line Cinema.
Starring Mark Wahlberg (Dirk Diggler), Julianne Moore (Amber Waves), Burt Reynolds (Jack Homer), Heather Graham (Rollergirl), Don Cheadle (Buck Swope), John C. Reilly (Reed Rothchild), Luis Guzmán (Maurice TT Rodriguez), William H. Macy (Little Bill), Robert Ridgely (The Colonel James), Ricky Jay (Kurt Longjohn), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Scotty J.), Nicole Ari Parker (Becky Barnett), Melora Walters (Jessie St. Vincent), Thomas Jane (Todd Parker), Joanna Gleason (Eddie’s mother) and Alfred Molina (Rahad Jackson).