Even though it has an immense cult following, BOOGIE NIGHTS is one of those films I love in spite of my better judgment. But I have affection for it just the same.
I can recall gendering at the beautiful one-sheet for Paul Thomas Anderson's breakthrough movie months before it was released in the fall of 1997. I marveled at its huge cast, and was excited about the subject matter--a trip through the Los Angeles porn industry of the late 70s/early 80s. I didn’t know who Anderson was at that time, having not seen his first feature, the small-time con film HARD EIGHT, but that would soon change. The BOOGIE NIGHTS poster, though, with its intricate photo collage of characters from the film, promised an epic portrayal unlike anything ever attempted. I was extremely thrilled about seeing it.
In it, we follow its naïve central character, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg, in his first really notable lead role), as he's ensnared into a makeshift family of porn mavens. As he’s performing tricks on the side at his busboy job at an L.A. nightspot, he’s spotted by the patriarchal porn auteur Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, in one of the best roles of his career). Impressed by his entire...um...package, Horner invites Eddie into the porn fold, and there his triumphs and troubles begin.
Eddie’s eventual transformation into the XXX-star Dirk Diggler is followed in great detail, but this story is really a kind of connective tissue for all the many other tales the film has to offer: Julianne Moore is a top-tier porn actress battling the courts and her ex-husband over custody of their son while using Horner’s coterie of performers as sort of stand-in children; William H. Macy is a meek assistant director struggling with his wife’s brazen infidelity; John C. Reilly is an amiable second-string performer (with a penchant for magic tricks) who’s attempting to forge a stronger identity for himself; Don Cheadle is another beaten-down porn star who’s finding difficulty breaking into the world of legitimate business; Heather Graham is the sexy but largely innocent Rollergirl, searching for the family she can’t find at home.
And Horner himself is battling pressures to convert to video rather than film--an idea he finds abhorrent (this is especially poignant now, seeing as how 35mm is dying right before our eyes). Throw into this mix Philip Seymour Hoffman as a schlubby sound guy, Luis Guzman as an enthusiastic outsider, Robert Ridgely as a troubled producer (he has a great scene at his downfall, and the movie is dedicated to him, as he died soon after production), Philip Baker Hall as an imposing moneyman (you have to love Anderson for resurrecting Hall's career), and Ricky Jay as Horner’s loyal photographer/editor, and you can get a sense of this film’s monumental ambition.
I still find many moments in BOOGIE NIGHTS to be quite wonderful. The widescreen cinematography, by Anderson regular Robert Elswit (who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD) is always vibrant and inventive, as is the diverse 70s-era source music score (which pairs nicely with a sad circus-flavored underscore by Michael Penn). Anderson’s writes dialogue for dumb people particularly brilliantly, so there’s always funny conversation ensuing. The period detail in the garish art direction (by Bob Ziembicki) and costume design (by Mark Bridges, who's gone on to do THE FIGHTER and THE ARTIST) are spot-on. I love seeing Burt Reynolds tearing into a meaty role for possibly the last time, and Julianne Moore is beautifully histrionic here, as she would be in Anderson’s MAGNOLIA as well (both she and Reynolds received supporting player Oscar nominations). As always, I find John C. Reilly to be a hoot as Reed Rothschild, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is sweetly doofy as the crewman who gets a crush on Eddie (his tortured confession of this to the unsuspecting Wahlberg is, I think, the movie’s most shattering scene).
But I also find that many parts don’t work: William H. Macy is a shamelessly barely-sketched punching bag of a character; Don Cheadle’s story fails to make a deep impression (note: any time you see a character in a white suit, you can bet that thing’s gonna be covered in blood by the end of the scene); and Graham’s Rollergirl, while extremely cute, also seems thinly-written. It feels like Anderson just has too much movie here for 2½ hours to hold (BOOGIE NIGHTS would have been a much better TV series). Also, the film owes a bit too much to the GOODFELLAS style of soaring-then-crashing storytelling (with the onslaught of the 80s being the rather too-obvious turning point, though thankfully the AIDS virus doesn't even make a cameo appearance).
Nevertheless, BOOGIE NIGHTS is required viewing, if only for its extremely tense final third, which finds Eddie struggling with a cocaine addiction while trying to launch a hilariously ill-thought musical career (the songs, performed bravely and horribly by Wahlberg and Reilly, include the original “Feel My Heat“ and an excruciating cover of "The Touch," the closing song to THE TRANSFORMERS MOVIE). Particularly memorable in this segment, too, is one of the great scenes in movie history, where a destitute Wahlberg, Reilly and ne’er-do-well Thomas Jane are stuck inside a free-basing coke-dealer’s house. The gun-toting dealer is played with a maniacal energy by Alfred Molina; he’s so coked up, he has well-hidden suspicions that these three desperate guys are planning to rip him off. With firecracker’s being thrown left and right by his houseboy, he holds the guys semi-hostage as he insists on playing “Jessie’s Girl” and “Sister Christian” for them on his stereo. You’ll never hear these two songs in quite the same way again. It’s really a marvelously scary moment that puts you right there in this mess and gets your heart pounding like you've been smoking crack alongside Molina.
There are many other things I like about the movie: the perfectly stiffly-acted porn sequences, shot on a scratchy 16mm; the famously dazzling tour through one of Horner’s house parties, done in one long shot that recalls a scene out of Kalatozov's I AM CUBA, where we eventually follow a girl as she jumps into the pool out back, all to the perfectly-chosen tune of Eric Burdon’s “Spill the Wine”; and the final shot of the film, which recalls another Scorsese classic, RAGING BULL, but which ends with, at last, a glimpse of what made Dirk Diggler famous. Most centrally, I like the film for its portrayal of adopted families; I think this is how many with too-dyfunctional families now get along. I wish BOOGIE NIGHTS as a whole was as good as these individual elements, but it’s still certainly something worth checking out, most preferably on the big screen. And it remains an important film, if only as the first calling card for an electrifying artist like Paul Thomas Anderson who, with each passing work, only seems to be getting better and better.