Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Drugs, Disco and lotsa Sex 70's Style
Its told, Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer, director, and co-producer of the Oscar nominated Boogie Nights (1997), was obsessed with porn from an early age. This started with his childhood belief that a neighborhood house had been the site of at least one porno shoot, and, this obsession continued through his adolescence. The mid to late 70s, the period of Anderson's studious attention here, was porn's golden age – before AIDS, before Just Say No, before the advent of video and the decline in production values it wrought, seemingly before irony – and he has fashioned a loving, sincere elegy for the embarrassing excesses of the era.
It's worth noting that the title of the film does indeed represent the first popular unironic use of the word "Boogie", and Anderson skillfully checks his cynicism at the door in telling the tale of young Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) from Reseda, who dreams of making himself into something better and harbors a thirteen-inch co-star in his Wranglers.
Boogie Nights is essentially the universal story of one man's rise and fall (if you'll excuse a pun), his struggle to keep on truckin'. But what a universe the film takes place in. The club where Eddie washes dishes is a gathering place for porn-industry luminaries like director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), earthy legend Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), insecure stud du jour Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), and high-school ingenue Rollergirl (Heather Graham).
When Jack is tipped off to Eddie's potential (already displaying the self-promotional savvy that will mark his future career, Eddie has been selling peeks), he quickly recruits the young stallion for his stable of actors, luring him not so much with promises of money or fame as with fatherly concern, interested conversation, stiff drinks by the pool, and naked chicks on the sofa. It's a pitch tailor made for an impressionable boy, and one of the strengths of Anderson's direction – and, yes, Wahlberg's fine acting – is that they never let you forget that deep down, the film's hero is just a big dumb kid.
You can tell that the film was a labor of love for Anderson; not just care but joy is lavished on his direction and compositions. The opening scene, a dizzy long tracking shot that snakes into and around the club where Jack holds court, contains a contagious excitement for the vitality of the actors – the camera just wants to get next to them, and you do too. It feels like a hybrid of Alan Rudolph and early Spielberg, wit without angst.
Burt Reynolds, turns in a restrained, unobtrusive performance, conveying sadness transfigured into the best possible course of action. William H. Macy, in a smallish part, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Scotty, the boom mike guy, are very good and touching. Anderson's handling of the diverse ensemble cast is indeed so deftly handled.
The music too lifts up the movie to grander heights, although the songs aren't original here. Assembled by Karyn Rachtman, who was the brains and ears behind the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, it's pitch-perfect for the film and nearly constant, like a groovy tapestry backdrop. To the strains of "You Sexy Thing," Anderson's camera plunges underwater, even, to film Eddie cavorting with starlets in the rippling chlorinated blue, and you're almost underwater too with the perfection of it all, not wanting to have to come up for air.
The ending though is sort of a cop-out. Maybe Anderson, as a first-time writer/director, either lacked the confidence to see his vision through or was afraid to risk his future career with the reputation as the guy who loosed on the public the idea that such giddy hedonism could go unpunished. As a result Boogie Nights lets go of its claim to subversiveness and bogs down in the same emotional populism that ruined The People vs. Larry Flynt. Yet, even after so many years, this is a great watch.