Boogie Nights

Steve Rhodes


The revered director Robert Altman's films are populated with a dizzying cornucopia of characters that assault your emotions. Although there are Altman aficionados who dote on his every movie, most people are impressed by some but bored by others. For every brilliant SHORT CUTS, there is a confusing KANSAS CITY.

Young director Paul Thomas Anderson's much talked about film BOOGIE NIGHTS can be viewed as a homage to Altman's style. Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1977-1983, the movie chronicles the life of porn film director Jack Horner, played in his best performance in dozens of years by Burt Reynolds. Although Jack is the story's glue, most of the picture focuses on Jack's stars and backers and on the whole porn industry scene of sex, drugs, and violence.

"Before you turn around, you've spent maybe 20, 25, 30 thousand dollars on a movie," complains Jack to his "17-year-old piece of gold," Eddie Adams. Eddie, who later picks a new name of Dirk Diggler, is played with charismatic intensity by Mark Wahlberg. Although Jack has visions of making a classy porn film where people will actually stay until the end, he knows his bread and butter is titillation. Eddie, who tells himself that "everyone is blessed with one special thing," has just the right sized equipment to make it big in the "adult film industry."

The storyline uses the descent into hell structure. Starting on an upbeat note, the players are all one happy family even if their ritual proclivities are certainly what most people would view as deviant. FARGO Academy Award nominee William H. Macy plays Jack's assistant director, Little Bill. Little Bill has to have a pretty thick skin since his wife, played by real-life porn star Nina Hartley, has sex with other men in every place imaginable, including the driveway, while others watch. Macy is terrific as the hopelessly trapped wimp of a husband.

Although one young waif ODs early on, the drug taking accelerates as the story advances. And as the characters begin to hit bottom, they turn with increasing frequency to violence. (Although different people will have different levels of sensitivity, I found the most shocking aspect of the film to be the amount of drug usage. There is more cocaine snorting in this one movie that I've seen in the last 500 combined.)

Undoubtedly the praise for the movie, which many have already put it in the best picture of the year category, comes from the depth of the characters and the exemplary quality of the acting. Julianne Moore plays Jack's live-in companion and porn actress Amber Waves. Amber approaches her fellow actors with maternal instincts even when having sex with them on camera. My favorite minor character is Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall), who, like the man in THE GRADUATE, has a one word piece of advice to Jack about the future. This time it's "videotape" rather than "plastics."

The picture has everything in it, right down to a dance routine straight out of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and that is the problem. According to published reports, Anderson had only two constraints. His contract with the studio obligated him to get an R rating rather than the dreaded NC-17 and to bring in the picture within a two-and-a-half hour running time. Although he did both, the pictures suffers greatly from being too long. With fewer characters, tighter editing, and a more focused story, it would have been much more palatable and enjoyable. At the theater I was in, the audience all looked exhausted when they left.

After a devastating ending, there is a upbeat and cutesy epilogue as if to say that we should not have taken the show or its characters too seriously. The movie BOOGIE NIGHTS suffers from too much promise but not enough control. Anderson seems to load the film up with every idea he's ever had. BOOGIE NIGHTS is considerably better than his last film, HARD EIGHT, and I hope in his next one he uses better judgment when it comes to pruning.