Like Hard Eight, Boogie Nights explores the sad, sleazy underbelly of a glitzy façade — but where Anderson’s first film was a relatively straightforward, uncomplicated character study, his next release found him making everything bigger, using a large ensemble cast to fill out an ambitious, overstuffed narrative that traced the rise and fall of a simple California kid (Mark Wahlberg) who becomes an overnight porn star in the late 1970s.
As with Hard Eight, Anderson plays his hand early on in Boogie Nights; the opening scene, which cuts between brief glimpses of the main cast as they move throughout a nightclub, introduces the characters while using a pair of extended shots to foreshadow the movie’s central relationship — the tangled father/son dynamic that develops between Wahlberg’s Eddie “Dirk Diggler” Adams and his eventual benefactor, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds).
Here’s where it becomes clear that family will be a recurring dominant theme in Anderson’s work — specifically, the ways in which your blood ties can strangle and cut you, and how they can be healed through by the family you choose for yourself, no matter how unorthodox your choices might be. That’s demonstrated here repeatedly — initially through the (arguably somewhat heavy-handed) awfulness of Eddie’s mother, whose hateful rage forces him out of the house while his father sits silently by, and then again throughout the movie: as Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) finds love with fellow porn star Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Walters); as Amber Waves (Julianne Moore, in a masterful performance) struggles to fill the void left after her lifestyle costs her visitation rights with her son.
There’s a lot of narrative to cover, even for a 155-minute movie, but Anderson doesn’t skimp on character development. More importantly, he refuses to treat his characters with condescension or contempt — you empathize with their desperation even as you marvel at their delusion. Just about everyone in this movie depends on an almost total lack of self-awareness to maintain any sort of happiness, but they aren’t objects of pity; they’re fundamentally sincere people in a deeply artificial environment, ones who have coped with dreams denied by substituting cheaper facsimiles. Plenty of us have been there — and we understand how disastrous it can be when reality inevitably intrudes, which is part of why the sense of mounting dread Anderson cultivates in Boogie Nights is so queasily powerful.
Again, Anderson makes marvelous use of music — there’s a reason Boogie Nights had two soundtrack albums — and his camera comes unleashed, prowling the canvas with a restless eye that, at one point, even takes the viewer inside a projector. There are times when he settles for distractingly obvious shots — there’s a moment where two characters engage in a crucial handshake that would have been recognized as foreshadowing even without the zoom and lock — but on the whole, this film reflects Anderson’s growing confidence as a director and screenwriter; even the stilted, Mamet-esque dialogue is kept to a minimum.
That confidence is also reflected in the sprawling array of themes Anderson attempts to tackle here — aside from its statements on family, Nights also presents a long, sobering series of arguments against the sort of optimistic delusion that leads people to take shortcuts instead of really working to achieve their goals. Almost everyone in the movie believes that believing in a dream is the same thing as making it come true.
I skipped Boogie Nights when it came out because I felt like I’d already seen enough hedonism-gone-bad morality plays to last me a lifetime — and that’s definitely part of what unfolds in the third act of the film, which presents the logical endpoint of a lifestyle driven by false optimism, by greed, by always wanting it all. Keep looking for the big score, Anderson seems to be saying, and you doom yourself to a life of attrition — everything gets used up, thrown away, or killed in pursuit of that hollow goal.
But it’s to Anderson’s credit that we still want happy endings — no pun intended — for everyone on the screen, and although his work has been accused of carrying a certain chill, Boogie Nights is full of affection. When it’s all said and done, it’s about love — how imperfectly we give it, how greedily we take it, and how, even after we seem to have exhausted every ounce of it we deserve, we still manage to find it in the unlikeliest of places.
Well, that was a lot of movie — but tomorrow, we try to unpack Magnolia, the Anderson joint that makes Boogie Nights look like a short film.
Monday: Hard Eight
Tuesday: Boogie Nights
Thursday: Punch-Drunk Love
Friday: There Will Be Blood
Saturday: The Master