Thursday, July 26, 2012

Boogie Nights: The Weirdest Family Story From One Of America's Greatest Writer-Directors!

The Good: Characters, Story, DVD bonuses, Acting
The Bad: It feels long at times
The Basics: When Eddie Adams runs away to join the porn industry, he finds family with Jack Horner and his crew in an excellent DVD set!

There are very few artists whose works I will go to see without reading reviews and carefully deciding about the current project. Indeed, there are only three writer-directors whose films would instantly get me into the theaters: Terry Gilliam, Kevin Smith, and P.T. Anderson. Anderson won my heart and attentions with Magnolia (reviewed here!), which made my list of Top Ten Movies of all Time. Following that, I checked out his debut, Hard Eight (reviewed here!) or "Sydney" as he prefers it to be called. Ironically, his breakout film, Boogie Nights, was the last film by him that I watched.

Set in the late 1970's in California, young Eddie Adams is working a menial job at a nightclub when porn director Jack Horner walks in and takes notice of him. Horner is convinced that Eddie is physiologically gifted and made for doing porn. Following a fight with his mother, Eddie runs away to Jack's mansion where he finds himself in the company of the illustrious porn stars Amber Waves and the equally young Rollergirl. Eddie changes his name to Dirk Diggler and becomes the porn star Jack is convinced he could be.

But with the advent of the '80's and the rise of video tape, Horner's porn empire and Diggler's career head into a nose-dive. Diggler becomes pathetically hooked on cocaine such that he cannot sustain his erections, Amber becomes lost in an obsessive quest to see her child and Jack finds himself churning out crap on video that makes him ashamed of what he does and who he is. As things tumble out of control for the principles, Diggler and Horner slowly realize how important they were to one another's lives.

Boogie Nights, despite being a film about the porn industry and the performers and denizens of it, is essentially the story of a family. Jack Horner and Amber Waves have an untraditional family that takes in the various elements of their work, most notably Rollergirl and Diggler. But they have an extended family that includes Diggler's costar Reed Rothchild, black porn star Buck Swope, the gay sound tech Scotty J., and Little Bill, the producer whose wife is constantly cheating on him. Indeed, it is Little Bill who marks the change of the decade when he deals with the infidelity of his wife and starts the '80's off with a serious change.

But weird as the family may be, this is essentially a piece that looks at the family; what creates one, what binds one, how they fall apart and what strengths exist within the family to bring the members back again. It's an adult film that explores poor decisions, living with consequences and the resiliency that comes with . . . well, love. Yes, indeed, if there is any common element in the works of P.T. Anderson, it is the strength of love and its weird resiliency. His film Punch-Drunk Love (reviewed here!) was possibly the most explicit with that, but Boogie Nights gets there, too.

The thing about Boogie Nights that might throw a lot of more moderate moviegoers is that it uses the porn industry as a setting and it fearlessly explores that setting. This means the film has a bit of nudity and as the '80's progress, there's some pretty extreme amounts of drug use and violence as well. But where the setting works most effectively is in the peripheral areas; the borders between the porn world and the real world. The '70's insulate Horner and his weird family and they thrive as a continual party. As the '80's begin and the family falls apart, much of what collapses is the isolation Horner and his band of merry actors have. And therein, the film takes its toughest look at the world.

For example, Buck Swope has a lifelong dream of owning an electronics store, specifically a stereo shop. He starts a family and makes a stab at respectability but in leaving the Industry, he finds no welcome in the real world. Prejudiced against him for the jobs he had as an actor, Swope's dreams are almost all systematically crushed by those existing in the "real world." (The resolution to Buck's character is discussed hilariously by Don Cheadle, who played Buck, on one of the two commentary tracks. Seriously, it's one of the funniest bits on any commentary track ever!) In a similar fashion, Amber's desire to be around her child is thwarted and Rollergirl discovers there's no escape for one as young as her from all she has done.

Boogie Nights has a pretty massive cast, so on its lush two-disc DVD set, bonus features extensively explore all that was cut in order to make the movie what it is. The frightening aspect of the film is how much more ambitious P.T. Anderson was prepared to make it, versus how it ended up. That is not to say that it is not ambitious, because it is, but Anderson describes - and illustrates through many deleted scenes - just how much more there could have been. Anderson has a commentary track by himself as well as a second commentary track featuring various cast members. Both commentary tracks are informative and entertaining.

Other bonus features include outtakes, full improv sessions where actors Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly simply play off one another and warm up to one another, and extensive cast and crew biographies as well as character biographies for the principle characters.

The reason moderate - adult - filmgoers ought not to be intimidated by the two and a half hour epic about a porn film family is that the movie is well-written, well-directed, and possesses a cast that is excellent working at the top of their game. Indeed, it's difficult in some ways to get into Boogie Nights at first because of Mark Wahlberg's acting. Wahlberg as Eddie Adams is playing a young man, barely legal as it were. Wahlberg's genius in his performance is he plays Adams as a kid; he's immature, awkward and he gets into fights with his mother and runs away from home. Wahlberg's performance is wonderfully childlike and it informs the viewer to the spoiled diva Diggler will become. It's unlike anything else Wahlberg has performed in and he does a masterful job of it.

Some of my favorite actors in the film - William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, and Melora Walters - get the short end of the stick as it were as they play supporting cast members. Even Don Cheadle is relegated to a support role that gives him almost no scenes to dominate as his own. Heather Graham is good as Rollergirl and part of her strength, like that of Wahlberg, comes from being able to portray young with a certain level of naivete.

Julianne Moore, who plays Amber Waves, reaffirms her true greatness as an actress, though I'm not sure she does anything new in her role other than appear naked. What I mean by that is simple; Moore is a truly great and versatile actress and she instantly brings a caliber and credibility to the production that some of the other actors - like Wahlberg at the time and Graham - cannot. She lives up to all of the expectations placed upon her as a great actress, wonderfully conveying emotions using her eyes and body language. Indeed, one of her most expressive moments is during her sex scene with Mark Wahlberg when the camera focuses on her eyes and they tell the viewer exactly what her character is thinking and feeling.

The cast is rounded out by Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner. Reynolds's new look as debonair middle aged gentleman was pretty much developed by his appearance in Boogie Nights. The immaculately trimmed beard, the use of the laugh lines and piercing eyes as opposed to attempting to make him look younger seem to stem from his portrayal of Horner and it's a great look for the mature actor. Reynolds brings a confidence to the screen that makes almost all of his scenes have a strange dignity to them. Reynolds plays Horner as a professional and a father-figure to the assembly and he has a leadership quality to him that works to make the piece seem bigger than life.

And Boogie Nights is a big film. It is ambitious and surprisingly smart and its only real flaw is that it feels long in a number of places. This is ironic considering Magnolia was longer, but does not feel it. This is not a film for the feint of heart; it is long, gruesome and watching the characters plunge from the top of the world to hitting their rock bottoms is depressing and difficult.

It takes a writer-director like P.T. Anderson to make the viewer care that much and execute it with that much panache!

For other films featuring Mark Wahlberg, please check out my reviews of:
The Other Guys
Date Night
Max Payne
The Departed
Four Brothers
Three Kings


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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