Only Paul Thomas Anderson could make a family movie about the porn industry and actually pull it off.
Okay, so it’s not a family film in the strictest sense, but anyone that’s spent time swimming in the pool party of this film will attest the ironic masterstroke of Boogie Nights is the familial core of which it finds its footing. Yes, it’s about adult films, and cocaine, and ineptitude, and ridiculous, childish ambition, and deeply, deeply flawed people, and infidelity, and shame, and “lost causes”, and excess, and all the “ands” … but it’s also, cliche as it sounds, rooted in finding purpose and finding your people.
Somehow Boogie Nights both defies and leans into cliche, but that’s why we love it. Well, that and the incredible amount of talent packed into a single cast. I mean, is there a better display of ensemble mastery than this? At least as far as the 90s are concerned, this has to be the crowning achievement.
PTA has never been the type of director to Garner mass appeal. From his earliest works, it was clear his path was more akin to Kubrick than that of Spielberg. That was never more clear than with this, his sophomore picture, an opus to family, character flaws, and the golden age of the porn industry and narcotics. Yet, in the thick of all extra-ness it carries, Boogie Nights still feels more empathetic than anything else. In fact, it’s a damn near-perfect level of restraint to not take it deeper into the recesses of taboo. Given the subject matter, it’s mastery to carry us through the fractured lives of arguably the most human, ground, three-dimensional characters he’s put to screen. Because under the surface of nudity, overdoses, and dangerous late-night absurdities rests a commentary of misfit connections.
To be honest, the heart of the film is simple: Even those that are lost or trying to find their way crave community. They deserve to find their people … no matter how screwed up.
The judgment-free underbelly exploration of a niche industry; the long following shots; the savage needle drops; the hollow glitz; the falls from grace, all of it speaks to the power of well-crafted character study. Icons the likes of Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, and William H. Macy usher-in a class of young raw talents like Mark Wahlberg, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Luis Guzman, and Nicole Ari Parker. Boogie Nights really becomes as much a showcase of the next generational forces of which to reckon as it is a modern-day masterpiece. A salute to forgotten, messy, horny, well-intentioned outcasts.
Boogie Nights changed modern, American cinema. Depending on the mood, and however many rewatches, we’ll waver from savoring the humor to applauding the wild ride to appreciating the feat of capturing that much humanity on screen in that arena.
Here’s how the story goes . . .
Teenager wants to be something great and leaves his home to go and find that one-in-a-million-shot opportunity. He luckily lands with the only folks uniquely suited to see and appreciate his rare gift. Immediately, they welcome him to the family business and set him up for unparalleled success. A bright shining star bursting with potential, making everyone around him better to some degree. Then, as it does, it all turns to shit. Things get dark. Nasty habits are formed, lives are lost, and things seen that cannot be unseen. Only after a harrowing journey of dangerous stakes and unflinching self-discovery, the young man makes his way back to the top; back to his people; and back in the role, the home, the life he knows best. But of course, it cost him his innocence.
In that sense, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights may be as idealistic about the American Dream as The Godfather. This is what modern storytelling is all about.
We see ourselves in this story. There’s a universality resting in the concept of, “I’m going to achieve my dreams!” Truly, on a superficial level, Boogie Nights operates on a plane that flirts with pie-in-the-sky territory.
But, you know, with the budding porn industry. Because it’s PTA and why the hell not?
Naturally, that’s where everything levels-up, or down in the 1970’s societal sense. Of course, this venture is much more interesting, wildly more comfortable, and deliciously more flawed when thrust among the likes of sex worders and drug afficianados.
The joke of it all is that Anderson paints for us a portrait of rich humanity. Really when we get down to it, Boogie Nights is a family movie. A film about how a group of wandering misfits of varying ages, races, and backgrounds not only found each other but found their best selves within the collective.
From Julianne Moore’s Academy Award worthy performance as Amber, the failed mother turned pornstar; embodying the exact loving and tender mothering energy these misfits need. To Burt Reynolds resurrecting his career in a titanic performance of bold screen presence; a father figure placing all these talented misfits into the right roles, set perfectly for their own unique success. All the way through to the misguided Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, an underrated performance radiating with fragile juvenile energy mixed with raw, kinetic sexual prowess. Even to the utterly heartbreaking Philip Seymour Hoffman, awkward as hell and perhaps more desperate for love than any other. Don Cheadle’s dream of going legit with a stereo store; Luis Guzman’s goal of simply making one adult film cameo; to Roller Girl’s high school ineptitude but big heart; to all the others. Most of them were at their best when in the protective, welcoming bubble of Jack Horner’s amicable porn empire.
And of those that fled the protective cocoon of sex work safety, their world turned ugly; even bloody.
The more we write this out, the more melodramatic it feels. Yet, through PTA’s pen, we’re in a master’s hands. We steer clear of trite, needless “isms”. We never settle for convenient dialogue, nor are we ever thrust into a scenario that feels implausible. This rich character study takes its time, unfolding piece-by-piece to slowly build points of earned, jarring tension that both shock and entertain. Humanity in all its unkempt glory front and center but still beautiful in the way that only this era and this arena could provide. Yet, still twinging with universality.
That speaks to the power of great filmmaking and the gravitational pull of, yes, family even in the adult industry.
Can we take a few minutes to appreciate the masterful deployment of the steadicam? Each time it hits here it’s technically perfect. Storytelling, soundtrack choices, all of it feeds the power of the steadicam. Certainly the best organic mechanism of character introduction; each in their own distinctive elements. Every installment somehow feels a little more immersive than the one before.
Damn. There’s no better way to weave the tapestry together.
Here’s the opening three-minute scene that sets the tone to perfection.
“Sister Christian,” “Jessie’s Girl,” and “The Belly of the Whale”
Among the film’s many technical achievements, I’d be remiss not to mention perhaps the crowning achievement of them all. Beginning with drug-ridden desperation and culminating in an angry, sweaty, and half-naked Alfred Molina, the drug deal robbery gone wrong stands out as a masterclass in thrilling filmmaking. And if nothing else, the best use of classic rock American cinema may ever see.
This is where we find our fallen hero, Dirk Diggler, in the belly of the whale as Joseph Campbell labels. Diggler’s lowest point. Strung out, broke, kicked-out of the porn game, beaten down in a parking lot for turning tricks, a smashed Corvette, and desperate for cash. It’s a trope, but an engaging one nonetheless. Yet somehow, in true Paul Thomas Anderson fashion, he finds a way to spiral us deeper.
Desperation breeds tension.
From the loud, obtrusive [and freakishly random] fireworks, to the blaring tunes of “Sister Christian” and “Jessie’s Girl”, to wildcard character high as a kite and armed, to a surprise amateur cash grab, to a sloppy, bloody shootout — the scene if a symphony of chaos. And for my money, stands as perhaps the single finest-crafted moment from the PTA canon. Which is not a small statement in and of itself.
The eccentric genius thrust us into a scene dripping with gut-wrenching consequences and leveled it up to make it that entertaining; that funny; that wild; and that harrowing all at the same time. No matter how many times I see it I don’t know whether to laugh or cry but I know my stomach will be in knots by the end of it every time.
Is that not a microcosm of the film’s journey itself?
Spend long enough in the underbelly of society’s outcasts, whether that label be fair or not, and you’ll find yourself influenced. In the vacuum of this lone scene, to say the tension is visceral would be the understatement of the year. Whether it’s mania, unbridled laughter, silent fear, or confusion as to what the hell will happen next — we’re going to feel something.
Rewatching it again recently I found myself in the cold sweats alongside Wahlberg and C. Reilly. Nervous. Anxious. And eager. The whole scenario is absurd! Even knowing where it was all headed, it didn’t provide any emotional protection for the viewer. Yet, when it was done, and that busted up ‘Vette sped off into the night … I took a deep breath then fought the urge to immediately rewind it and relive that mania again. Because it was that entertaining. Because it was that ridiculous. Because it was that grounded.
We laugh at the absurdity. We jam out to the familiar guitar riffs. Even still, we ache for Dirk’s fall from grace.
That is a testament to Boogie Nights. That through all the parties, all the drugs, all the sex, all extra-ness, we’re invested in the humanity; in the characters. Yeah, Dirk’s is a classic tale of a dude screwing up the best thing he ever had and falling deeper into the cycle of dangerous mistake after dangerous mistake, but through the lens of Anderson’s pen and camera, we’re granted agency to look deeper and without judgment.
Dirk’s just a kid. A kid without any coping skills and without any guidance and who was really only naturally good at one thing. He was the best at that one thing and then he threw it all away. In the arena of storytelling that’s a tale as old as time. That’s an arc of which we all identify. We’ve seen it a thousand times and we’ll continue going to the cinema to see it a thousand times more told in a thousand different ways. What makes Boogie Nights so fascinating is that we can be so emotionally invested as that familiar character journey is set among the backdrop of the Los Angeles adult film scene of the ’70s and ’80s.
With that taking us back to sweaty Alfred Molina and three incredibly lost dudes, this scene vaults us into the “no going back” territory. The moment when our unconventional heroine of sorts will undoubtedly be scarred but still faced with a decision: Wallow in the pit of filth, or go back to the only life, the only people that can care for him. Into the arms of Jack Horner and Amber and Roller Girl and into the glamorous pool and naked in front of the camera. But not first without the cost of fractured pride, utter shame, and lost life. Because in this game every single thing is extreme.
The symphony of drug-ridden chaos is a masterful climax standing as a fine-tuned scene of thrilling, unforgettable hysterics. Deeply enthralling and upsetting and flat-out awesome all at the same time.
What Boogie Nights Means to Us
Oh, the days of being a teenager and sneaking into the movies to see a movie like Boogie Nights. Man, those were the days. I loved this movie for several reasons. Let’s just get it out of the way, shall we? One of the main reasons is Roller Girl. Grrrr. Past the fleshy parts of this film, I really didn’t understand just how packed this cast was at the time. Julianne Moore was not only lovely but turned in an amazing performance that was way more Oscar-worthy than Kim Basinger who did absolutely nothing in L.A. Confidential. Burt Reynolds was a big part of my childhood but he hadn’t done anything of significance in quite some time before this and I was excited to see him do something of substance for a change.
Outside of the heavy hitters, there were some familiar faces that were just role players but would go on to be some of my favorite actors after Boogie Nights. Along with Moore, there were John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Thomas Jane, and Alfred Molina that would all go on to be actors I would either follow or be excited to see them pop up in certain movies. Lastly, there was one scene that would stick with me as one of the most intense atmospheres ever created by PTA. That Scene is the drug deal where Alfred Molina plays an absolute unhinged dealer in a silk robe and speedo. It’s so great it almost beats out the Roller Girl scene.
As far as tapestry films go, Boogie Nights is far from the first. Fascinating still is that it just might still be ahead of its time. Or, perhaps a better way of capturing it would be to say, in terms of narrative convention, PTA’s sophomore film feels familiar and lived-in. Yet, from a logline and a purely technical perspective this piece of polished, guttural, and surprisingly hopeful storytelling still feels fresh and vivid and vital. Is it weird to call Boogie Nights required viewing? Because I truly think it may be (at least in the sense of one earning cinephile status).
Maybe that’s how it became a unicorn? A film that somehow belongs to three distinct eras of American iconography:
- The 1970’s as a period piece.
- The 1990’s as a bonafide all-decade masterpiece.
- And the 21st Century because, in many ways, it still feels groundbreaking.
A deeply profound character study interrogating what it means to find the deepest sort of connection and how that carries within it the power to alter trajectories of the lives of numerous people. Ballsy in statement by daring to explore these deeply human tendencies, desires, and faults while unpacking the unfiltered nuances of sexual glamor and entertainment. Cathartic in a sense that we feel, we judge, and we self-identify along the way. Visionary from the very first moment Mr. Anderson set out to write the first line. Which, ironically, cemented himself as a rare, eccentric storyteller.
Boogie Nights is a true, blue and gloriously messy classic. Because sex, drugs, and rock and roll are as American as apple pie. Also, the “A Star is Born” concept of it all is as relatable as it is emotionally manipulative in the best way possible. Because at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to find our people. If that does not universally resonate, I’m not sure what does.
It’d be unfair to say, “Boogie Nights represents the best of us and the best of what cinema has to offer.” That’d be selling the film short, ironically enough. Instead, we may say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights shows us who we are, dares us to acknowledge that truth, and compels us to examine it further. Of course we’ll be unsettled at the sight of a few things; how could we not?
But you know, that’s life and that’s glamour. Unkempt, cruel, inherently hopeful, riddled with good intention, filled with missed and wasted opportunities, and, if we’re lucky, present with people who see us as we are and say, “Yeah, we’re family anyway.”
Maybe that’s a bit too flowery of a settlement for a PTA title. Although, the “God Only Knows” needle drop at the end is a beautiful touch so on-the-nose it’s almost comical. Perhaps that’s the joke all along?
Here, 24 years later, I still can’t decide if this is Mr. Anderson’s most or least approachable film. But I do know this, for a time capsule, this one feels timeless in scope, craft, cast, and script. In the arena of unkempt prestige movie-making, Boogie Nights is an American classic.