Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights shows a gifted young filmmaker — Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s only 27 — with a severe case of “Hey, Look, Ma, I’m a Director!” No doubt it’s an energetic, exuberant piece of moviemaking; if only energy and exuberance equalled greatness. It can, in the hands of a master like Martin Scorsese. But Anderson, in this film, is only a skilled imitator. Boogie Nights is lively and often powerful; it’s impossible to dislike, unless you can’t get past the subject matter. But it’s far from the masterpiece that many critics are claiming it is.

This is Anderson’s second film, after the taut, superior drama Hard Eight, released earlier this year. Hard Eight was original and unpredictable, though much less ambitious; Boogie Nights has ambition to burn. Anderson wants to bypass sophomore slump and blow everyone away, as Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino did with their second films. Anderson wants it all; he wants to be Scorsese, Tarantino, even Robert Altman (Boogie Nights tries for the kaleidoscopic sweep of Altman’s Nashville). But Hard Eight showed what he can do when he’s content to be himself.

The ambition shows even in the subject: the porn-film world at its “peak” in the late ’70s, before it succumbed to video in the ’80s. Anderson strains to convince us that this is a worthy subject for a 152-minute film — he frames the rise and fall of a lunkheaded porn star as a tragicomic epic. But there are too many characters, each with only a single trait. William H. Macy appears as a cameraman with an arrogantly unfaithful wife; you giggle at his hideous ’70s wig, and you want to see more of him. But all Macy gets to do is sulk over his wife, and his final rage comes from nowhere. (How do his colleagues react to his outburst? We never find out.) It’s a waste of a fine actor, and an example of Anderson’s one-note screenwriting here.

Boogie Nights is about Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a busboy groomed by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) to be the next big thing. (Jack’s father-son relationship with Eddie recalls Hard Eight, where a veteran gambler took a young loser under his wing.) Innocent Eddie, endowed with a prodigious member, becomes “Dirk Diggler,” celebrated porn stud. He finds a family among Jack’s crew, including porn queen Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), who loses custody of her son and acts as den mother to Eddie and other lost sheep. Stardom goes to Eddie’s head; he turns into an egotistical cokehead and swiftly drops into squalor.

And I just told you the story in 150 fewer minutes than it takes Anderson. Boogie Nights is long but never boring — it flies by. But it has epic length without epic depth. It flits along, observing and sketching. Some of it is immensely enjoyable; Anderson throws a lot of stuff at the wall, and some of it sticks. Julianne Moore is vividly poignant as a woman who uses sex to conceal her desolation, and Alfred Molina turns up as a crazed cokehead and sends the film’s energy level through the roof. Yet even his scene is a caffeinated copy of the drug-deal-goes-sour sequence in Brian De Palma’s Scarface.

After a while, the borrowings add up. De Palma is also a cheerful thief, as is Tarantino, but they seal their homages with a prankish wit all their own. Anderson is too ambitious to be prankish, but he also isn’t above lifting shots and entire scenes from Scorsese. You sit there thinking “Okay, that’s GoodFellas” and “Oh, now he’s doing Taxi Driver” as the camera tracks and swoops. Sometimes Anderson leaves Scorsese behind — the camera dives in and out of a pool a la I Am Cuba. Critics are responding to Anderson’s joie de cinema, and I did, too. But adding a prosthetic penis to the last scene of Raging Bull isn’t exactly an improvement. Boogie Nights is a well-acted, compassionate study of a sordid milieu. It’s also almost totally second-hand.

Explore posts in the same categories: drama, overrated

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