In high school, writer/director/producer Paul Thomas Anderson made a short mockumentary about an adult film star. Less than ten years later, he expanded that project into one of the best films of the 1990s. That film is the 1997 classic Boogie Nights. Combining Anderson’s visionary directing with excellent performances from the entire cast, the result is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The film follows Eddie Adams as he becomes adult film superstar Dirk Diggler, experiencing unimagined success and, of course, a subsequent fall from grace. On the surface, Boogie Nights is a film about porn. But it’s more than that — it’s a film about family, acceptance and the perils of stardom.
Before becoming Dirk Diggler, 17-year-old Eddie Adams lives at home with his abusive mother and apathetic stepfather. Fed up with his home life and in search of stardom, Adams moves in with adult film director Jack Horner. There, he meets a group of veteran porn stars who immediately accept him as one of their own. This pack of misfits is not simply a group of people who work together — it’s a family. The stern but compassionate Jack is Dirk’s father figure. Amber Waves replaces Dirk’s abusive mother, and he finds a brother in Reed Rothchild. The whole situation is weirdly heartwarming.
As Jack, Amber and Reed accept Dirk, Anderson accepts those who work in the porn industry. While a lesser director might cast adult film stars in an unfavorable light, Anderson passes no judgment on his characters. He looks at the adult film industry with curiosity, not disgust. He neither glorifies nor vilifies his characters. And in doing so, he indirectly attacks the stigma of sex work and subtly asks viewers to examine their own personal biases.
Of course, Boogie Nights isn’t a purely uplifting film — its storyline is quite dark. Though Dirk enjoys enormous success as a porn sensation, his fame and fortune is short-lived. After becoming addicted to cocaine and losing his job, Dirk begins a rapid downward spiral, which ultimately results in him risking his life during a drug deal. Dirk’s story is a reminder that success isn’t permanent and can be thrown away at a moment’s notice.
The film is as brilliant technically as it is thematically. Though it’s only Anderson’s second feature film, it proves that he’s a master of his craft and one of the most inventive auteurs of his generation. It’s beautifully shot, from the opening Goodfellas-esque tracking shot to Dirk’s closing Raging Bull-esque monologue. And although the two aforementioned shots are clearly homages to Martin Scorsese, the remainder of the film is shot in a style that’s uniquely Anderson.
Those in front of the camera are as talented as the man behind it. While every performance is excellent, Burt Reynolds’ performance as Jack and Julianne Moore’s as Amber stand out. Wahlberg’s performance as Dirk is incredibly genuine, possibly the best of his career. The film’s extraordinarily talented cast make a larger-than-life story surprisingly human.
Overall, Boogie Nights does everything right and absolutely deserves its status as a cinematic triumph.
Image credit: Alan Light via Flickr