What surprised me most about critically-acclaimed Boogie Nights was how average and overrated it was. That’s difficult to admit, knowing that every other critic has at least liked the movie, but I really didn’t see what the praise was for. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t do much for me.
Goodfellas, 1990, Martin Scorsese, which clearly inspired Anderson.
Dazed and Confused, 1993, Richard Linklater, another era-defining movie focusing on the seventies.
Eddie (Mark Wahlberg) is 17, living with his parents, and washing dishes at a nightclub for a little money when he is discovered by “exotic” filmmaker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). Eddie hesitates at the offer, but can’t say no to a freebie with porn star Rollergirl (Heather Graham). The decision to join up with Jack gels when Eddie’s mother kicks him out of the house for staying out too late with his smutty high school girlfriend. If only she knew.
Eddie is introduced to Jack’s inner circle of “actors” and filmmakers and is warmly accepted, a welcome change from his controlling mother and sympathetic but weak father. One actor in particular, Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) takes a shine to Eddie and they become good friends.
Eddie has a notoriously large penis, so he’s soon given the chance to star in his own movie. He takes the distinguished name Dirk Diggler and gives “acting” his best shot. He proves to be a capable star, not just for his “gift” but for his intensity and sexiness. Jack is pleased, his costars are pleased, and at the end of the year, the whole industry is pleased, having fallen for the physique and charm of Dirk Diggler. At the adult film awards ceremony, he wins three of their most prestigious awards: Best Newcomer, Best Cock, and Best Actor.
At this point, life is good. Dirk has made it big. All his friends are celebrating. Everyone is having a wonderful time. But many changes come when the 70s become the 80s: pornography is drifting away from film to video; Dirk starts using drugs; some of his friends are killed; life begins to turn sour.
It is clear that Anderson is emulating Martin Scorsese, whose latest, Casino, carefully examines the plodding rise and sudden fall of the crime industry in Las Vegas.
Anderson is trying to do the same thing, but with the pornography industry in L.A. There is even a visual quote of one or two of Scorsese’s trademark scenes — a very long take is the first shot of the movie as it follows Jack into a nightclub, as Scorsese did in Goodfellas; once inside, the camera roams around the room, introducing us to many of the characters as Scorsese did in both Casino and Goodfellas. Anderson’s shot does impress, more so because of the very-wide widescreen he chose. But he doesn’t end up using the wide screen much, and the elaborately choreographed shots are clearly copies. As much as he wants to be, Anderson is no Scorsese.
The “rise and fall of” structure was less effective in Boogie Nights than in Casino because of its easy symmetry. In Boogie Nights when the 80s came (literally on New Year’s Eve 1979) everyone’s life changed. The advent of video, the death of a leading character, Dirk’s exposure to cocaine, all happened on the same night. The characters and their actions didn’t effect the change; time itself was to blame, and so changes seemed more contrived than meaningful.
I would also fault the movie for having too simple a story; there is not enough depth. Sure, there are plenty of details — as Rob Blackwelder put it, the movie swims “in the smallest details of period accuracy” — but all the effort that went into the look was wasted on a shallow story: life is rosy, then life sucks. No cause, no poignancy, no lessons, no big loss. Just a swing of the pendulum.
And in spite of praise for the movie’s characters, the movie itself condescends to many of them; it asks the audience to laugh at how dumb the characters are; a no-no if you want your drama to be taken seriously. (Specifically, I’m thinking of how impressed Jack is with is obviously-bad action/porn movie effort; or when Dirk cuts a record that is so bad that it is clearly meant as a director-audience joke; a joke at the expense of the characters.)
There are redeeming qualities to Boogie Nights. The pacing was just right in a few places: very early on as the story is set up, and later as a haunting music loop runs under scenes where lives are falling apart.
Also, at the very end, Anderson allows his characters a sort of family reunion, which really was a nice touch; it brought all the characters back together, and we could see how far apart they’d grown and how much they still loved each other as a family.
All of the performances were very good, including Wahlberg’s good-natured optimistic kid whose dark side takes over, Reilly’s loving brother/mentor, Reynolds’ tasteless but sincere patriarch, Julianne Moore’s neurotic matriarch, and Graham’s confident unabashed porn star, to name just a few.
All in all, though, I really don’t see what the hype is about.
I have tried to understand what other people love and respect about this movie, and nothing they say really clicks with me. Words like “detached” and “demystify” and “matter-of-fact” don’t describe an interesting movie to me. If one had to make an R-rated, mainstream movie about the pornography industry (that includes a shot of a giant penis, no less) that’s the only way to go. But the compromise is too much. Nothing in Boogie Nights moved me or made me care much for the characters and their demystified lives.