Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Movie Review: "Boogie Nights" by David Pretty

Hey, Porn Stars!

I saw Boogie Nights in theaters in 1997 and upon first viewing I thought it had some issues.  Not in the same way that say, Doom has issues, but issues nonetheless.  I recently revisited the film on Netflix after nearly fifteen years (yikes!) and I'm still convinced that the movie is a tad over-rated.

Here's the theatrical trailer to get you warmed up:

If the film has any weaknesses, it isn't in the stellar cast.  In an amazing continuous shot that would make Scorsese proud, we're introduced in quick succession to the main characters.  First up is Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner, a prototypical 70's-era smut peddler and wannabe auteur.  Arguably, this is one of the best performances in Reynold's storied career.  His take on Jack Horner is instinctive, matter of fact and completely self-assured.   

Accompanying him is the classically-dubbed, veteran porn vixen Amber Waves played expertly by the truly incredible Juliane Moore.  If I'm not totally mistaken this was the first time I ever saw Moore in a film and my initial crush on her persists to this day.

The pair arrive in style at the Hott Trax disco nightclub where a quiet, unassuming, industrious, and um...well-hung dreamer named Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) toils away washing dishes while making mad money on the side exploiting his prodigious...talents.  Eddie's reputation proceeds him and Jack soon offers him a new position with his budding production company.  Well, actually several new positions... 

After fleeing from his perpetually drunk and verbally abusive mother, Eddie attends a decadent pool party where he (and the audience) meet the rest of Jack's not-as-dysfunctional-as-you-might-expect extended family.  Amongst them is William H. Macy as the eternally cuckolded Assistant Director "Little" Bill, Don Cheadle as the Country n' Western obsessed, socially awkward Buck, Heather Graham in a star-making turn as Rollergirl, John C. Reilly as the Han Solo look-alike Reed and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the pining boom operator Scotty.

After a couple of Reed's "rockin'" margaritas, Eddie is inspired to re-christen himself with the penultimate porn handle.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson gives us a clever cinematic moment as the name appears in neon lights on screen, presumably the same way it appears in Eddie's imagination.  Eddie Adams is dead.  Long live Dirk Diggler.

In Dirk's porn debut he's paired up with Amber.  Their first stilted scene together is note perfect and replete with wooden acting and tin-eared dialogue.  Despite the cold impassive stare of an unblinking camera lens and the presence of a curious crew who want to see if Dirk can "rise to the occasion", our hero performs above and beyond the call of duty, exhausting a can of film and Ms. Waves in the process.

Accolades and a slew of additional appearances soon follow.  In a nod to the bizarre 70's phenomenon of "artistic", story-based porn flicks, Dirk and Reed come up with the character of  Brock Landers for a series of "private dick" pictures.  The fake trailer Anderson designed for the film is as deliriously funny as the Beastie Boy's video for "Sabotage".

Soon Dirk has amassed all the wealth and material possessions that he's ever yearned for.  During a housewarming party he proudly leads Amber though his swingin' bachelor pad and giddily inventories the features and benefits of every new (but now hopelessly dated-looking) designer item.   The scene is so sincerely performed by Wahlberg that it's easy to miss the sadness and emptiness inherent in the subtext.

It's here that the film reaches a turning point.  It ceases to be a naturally flowing story and becomes one of the most clunky, mechanical examples of deus ex machina plotting I've ever seen in a film.  Up to this point, the artificial world created by Jack Horner seems almost idyllic.  Except for one overdose during the pool party scene, the first half of the movie makes life in the porn industry seem like a dream job.  Everyone gets along.  Nothing seems seedy or exploitative.  Hell, the characters don't even swear unless they're on camera.

It's as if the happy, blissfully magical decade of the Seventies had cast a protective aura of goodwill around the characters, only to be torn asunder by the evil and torrid 80's.  Amber suddenly develops a coke habit.  In a moment of dysfunctional maternal bonding, she compels her ersatz son Dirk to try it with her.  Jack has a prescient meeting with a new producer who assures him that film is dead and home video is the future.  Jack's hubris is such that he vows never to shoot a skin flick on video because "if it looks like shit, and sounds like shit, it must be shit".   

The inflexible script keeps raining down a merciless and arbitrary stream of misery on the characters.  There's a jarring suicide.  Dirk and Reed are forced to do bone-headed interviews defending their industry against charges of violence and exploitation, as if such things never existed in porn prior to the 80's.  The suave producer that bankrolls Jack's pictures is suddenly revealed to be be a pervert.  Professional jealousies rear their ugly heads when young, up and coming (?) talent begins to emerge.

Indeed, the script seems to ensure that just as soon as the characters finish singing Old Ange Sign at midnight on December 31'st 1979, nothing good will ever happen to them again.  Need more examples?  Dirk breaks from Jack in a drug-fueled rage and embarks on a disastrous (although admittedly hilarious) singing career.  Video does indeed cripple Jack's film production and he's forced to pimp Rollergirl out to random creeps on the street.  Amber can't get custody of her son because of her line of work.  Buck is crushed when his request for a small business loan is refused after his adult film career is exposed.  Which makes me wonder, does he think that there's only one bank in all of California? 

In doing this I assume that director Paul Thomas Anderson is telling us that all the happiness and contentment in the first half of the film is illusory and that the porn industry attracts damaged souls who try to convince themselves that their professions are legitimate.  They hide their self-shame and emptiness by indulging in contagious vices that inevitably infect everyone around them.  Pity that the film's ending completely and totally contradicts this.

It's real a shame that the script and story are so transparently fake since there are so many great things going on in this film.  I've already praised the cast, but Anderson's deft use of continuous shots and inventive cinematography is superb.  The constantly moving camera really helps to convey a slightly intoxicated, Bacchanalian feeling.  Also, the wardrobe, hair, and set design are period perfect, although sometimes it looks a bit put-on, like a racier version of That 70's Show

The film is redeemed somewhat by an incredibly tense denouement, inspired by the real-life misadventures of legendary porn actor John Holmes.  After falling on hard times, Dirk and Reed agree to a hair-brained scheme to bilk a crazed drug dealer out of $5000.00 dollars.  The resulting scene plays out like a short film by Quentin Tarantino.  The inappropriately-attired pusher, played to batshit-insane perfection by Alfred Molina, indiscriminately waves guns around and grooves to "classic" 80's tunes while his mountainous bodyguard always seem just a second away from discovering that the drugs are fake.  Add in a super-twitchy partner and a mute Asian boy-toy with a penchant for setting off an endless stream of firecrackers and you've got yourself a memorable, surreal, and  insufferably suspenseful climax.

Nevertheless, because of the film's arbitrary plotting and lack of real insight into the industry I have to give Boogie Nights a mixed review.  I still recommend it as a primer on acting and casting, but I just wish that the script was as honest as the film's clarion personalities.

Tilt: down.

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