Right as the opening reel starts to spin, you just know you are going to enjoy Boogie Nights. A dipping, sweeping crane shot-turned-long take swings us inside a popping nightclub, introducing us to the majority of the stellar ensemble cast, their groovy characters, and the feel-good party world they live in, all to the funky disco beat of The Emotions’ Best of My Love. And all this before you even have a chance to draw breath.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson may now be widely recognised as one of the most innovative filmmakers of his generation, but back in 1997 he was still a relatively unknown entity. His gritty debut feature, Hard Eight (1996), did not reach a wide audience, though it was rightly praised for its understated originality and performances.
Then came Boogie Nights, the tale of a fictional, incredibly well-endowed porn star named Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), set in California during the late-70s and early-80s; also known as the golden age of porn in North America. Mentoring him is legendary porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), fucking him are Amber (Julianne Moore) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham), and quickly warming to him is his best porno pal Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly).
The story may be split into a standard rise and fall journey through Dirk’s experience in the sex cinema industry, but transcending that, and standing out for a 155-minute picture, is the pacing. PTA delivers the very definition of an assault on the senses; overwhelming us with snippets of character development, quick fire cuts, fucking, addictive dialogue, more fucking, and a seemingly never-ending deluge of seamlessly blended upbeat tunes.
Ironically, one of the most concentrated, drawn out scenes is Dirk’s first shoot, where instead of focusing on the action at hand, PTA teases us with quite wonderful reaction shots of those in the room watching Dirk, many of whom are witnessing his “great big cock” for the first time. Without a single word being uttered as we cut along the line, mere facial expressions load us up with amusing, emotional, and tragic truths, some of which will come full circle later on.
Building on the long take and tracking shot mastery he established in Hard Eight, PTA goes above and beyond on the technical front by producing iconic sequence after iconic sequence, from Horner’s epic pool party to Little Bill’s (William H. Macy) decision to bow out of proceedings at an end-of-decade New Year’s Eve party. Sound, too, is used to tremendous effect, particularly during the insanely tense prelude to Dirk’s redemption, where the humble fire cracker becomes a tool of the devil in a room full of guns, blow and overriding paranoia.
Though it was always going to turn dark on us, Boogie Nights crucially manages to maintain its humour – adjusted from feel good to frightening – throughout. It is testament to PTA’s superb script that the characters in such a seedy world are so damn likeable and, at times, outrageously funny. Wahlberg and Reilly excel as the hopeless upstarts of their industry, while side-splitting support comes from the excellent Luis Guzmán and Don Cheadle.
Reynolds, meanwhile, did not get on with his director and hated the material to the extent that he is yet to view the final cut. That did not stop him being launched back into the Hollywood spotlight, however, as he secured a nomination at the Academy Awards and won numerous other statues for his highly appealing performance, including a Golden Globe. Moore also picked up a deserved Academy Award nomination for a beautifully charged turn as the emotionally wrecked Amber, while Graham steals a number of her scenes as she wheels around on a pair of ever-present roller skates.
Now 20-years-old, Boogie Nights is an unmissable 90s classic and essential viewing for all PTA fans. Just remember that, in Dirk Diggler’s world, the penis will always pop out of the pants. Eventually.