Boogie Nights is somehow both a quirky character study and a sprawling epic. Covering a decade of gross excess and tragic heights, P.T. Anderson’s ode to movies understands that moviemaking is boring but sex, drugs, and John C. Reilly are not. The trials of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) the greatest porn star who’s name just pops off the marquee as he enter the banal world of porn-making to his fall, to his redemption covers the decade of banal excess- 1980s. We meet his new porn family (to say there are incestuous undertones sells the point rather low) director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) older co-star Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), younger co-star Roller Girl (Heather Graham), a sidekick Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) alongside hangers-on (Don Cheadle, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Thomas Jane). Diggler goes from soft-spoken bus boy to self-aggrandizing drug addict before fulfilling his call to be the prodigal son. It’s more than a monument to a fictional porn star but to the filmmaker who made it.
P.T. Anderson starts his mastery of tension building, the beautiful art of suspense in the film. Considering the slow simmer found in Magnolia and There Will Be Blood (originally wrote There Will Be Love as I’m a romantic at heart), the bad drug deal in Boogie Nights is a one-scene wonder. The second Dirk, Reed, and Todd get out of the car to when Dirk barely escapes without getting shot in half has been correctly recognized as a short film in itself. Watching Rahad Jackson play Russian Roulette with his Vietnamese boyfriend sets off firecrackers should be too ludicrous to work, it brings far too much attention onto itself but by catching the tone of the film’s comedic tragedy it’s not only successful but the most endearing payoff in any of Anderson’s films. (As we shall see in the next few reviews.)
Calling Boogie Nights the most cinematic of Anderson’s works which seems odd considering the biblical levels of There Will Be Blood and the sprawling heights of Magnolia but when Anderson finds the Greek tragedy of Boogie Nights. Shakespearian hubris might seem ridiculous talking about 80s porn but not when the inherent ridiculousness of every scene is admitted. When Todd starts laughing during the botched robbery that even in this unbelievably tense situation is sublimely ridiculous. The film naturally can’t take the characters seriously as they do themselves, topping such narcissism was not meant for mere man. No matter how awful the situation becomes, it’s obvious these characters have only themselves to blame for getting into the situation.
None of them know what they’re selling. At his job at a stereo store Buck has no idea what Hi-Fi has to do with audio equipment and drives away customers by playing country music full blast. Jack Horner thinks he’s making cinema where the sex is at most just a marketing tool. Amber Waves thinks she’s a great surrogate mother for the porn stars while introducing them to cocaine. And Dirk Diggler thinks he can make it in the music industry. These flat-out delusional figures can more or less survive together but have little hope when they have to step-out into reality. A bubble of dream covers them until they make steps out in the real world. The only violation of Horner’s home is Little Bill’s murder-suicide. Otherwise, the worst events all happened somewhere in the California nightscape. After their trials in the wilderness, like an Amish teenager on Rumspringa, each character returns to the Horner house wiser and sadder but with an understanding that they can only be happy in their dreamland. Why work when you can fuck for a living?