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"Boogie Nights"

By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  If there's one thing I hate to do, it's jump on the bandwagon. Ever since the audacious porn industry opus Boogie Nights opened the prestigious New York Film Festival a couple months back, film critics nationwide have been falling all over themselves praising it as the film of the year. But, you know, every once in a while that bandwagon is playing a mighty catchy tune. So, much as I hate to haul myself onboard and plop down next to Roger Ebert's sweaty ass, I gotta admit this is thefilm of the year.

Not that an epic ensemble-cast tale of the 1970s pornographic film industry is going to be everybody's cup of tea. Not that everyone will take to this sprawling mix of randy, human comedy and bleak, soulful drama. Not that there aren't a few folks out there who, no matter what every film critic in the nation says, will ever be convinced that a film starring ex-rapper Marky Mark and ex-"Bandit" Burt Reynolds is Oscar-caliber material. ... But, dammit, it is.

In Boogie Nights, Mark (nee "Marky Mark") Wahlberg plays Eddie, an ambitious young SoCal teen working as a busboy in the trendy Hot Traxx discotheque. Unfortunately, our boy just isn't quite sure what his ambition is. One fateful night, though, he runs into hot shot porn filmmaker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). It's a match made in Heaven. Seems our boy Eddie is endowed with a 13-inch crank ("Everyone is blessed with one special thing," he proclaims proudly). Before you can say "Holy Macaroni!" Eddie has adopted the name "Dirk Diggler" and is steadily rising to the top of the adult film biz. To really grasp Boogie Nights,it must be understood that porn was more than just big business in the 1970s. With the worldwide success of films like Behind the Green Door, porn was on the verge of going mainstream. Times, to say the least, are kind to Jack Horner and his merry troop of performers (including Julianne Moore as grand dame porno star Amber Waves, Don Cheadle as stylistically confused Buck Swope, John C. Reilly as disco hipster Reed Rothchild and Heather Graham as teeny-bopper sex queen Rollergirl).

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (an astonishingly young 26 years old) has chosen to focus on a wide range of characters to show what is, in essence, the rise and fall of a business. Boogie Nights' narrative runs from 1977 until 1984. The 1970s are filled with polyester suits, disco parties and uninhibited sex. Dirk and his fellow porn stars are on a magic carpet ride of fame and money. Anderson captures the decade of decadence with such a precise eye for detail that you can almost smell the naugahyde and Hi Karate. In the 1980s, though, home video came in and assassinated the "artistic" porno industry. A disastrous New Year's Eve party ushers in the 1980s on a black note, and the film shifts gears to show the dark side of fame, power and sex (yes, there's a dark side to everything). Amazingly, there is no "moralizing" in this moralistic tale. Drugs, jealousy and big business do take their toll, but this is far from an indictment of an evil industry. In fact, Anderson creates a sort of wistful reflection on the almost "innocent" sex industry of the 1970s.

The real moral here is about family. At 17, our boy Dirk is still living with his parents--a shrieking harpy of a mother and a do-nothing father. In joining Jack Horner, Dirk is searching for a place to fit in. Amazingly enough, he finds it. A family, as Boogie Nights defines it, is not a biological construct; it is an entity that loves you unconditionally and forgives your transgressions, no matter how far from home you stray. Porn auteur Jack Horner is like the benevolent papa bear to his dysfunctional family of misfits and good-natured perverts.

I've heard rumblings that Burt Reynolds is "embarrassed" by this startlingly raw and open-minded film. He shouldn't be. Boogie Nightsis going to earn him an Oscar. Reynolds, underplaying masterfully, hands in his best performance since, um ... well, ever. Fact is, you won't find a performance in this film that slacks.

To his enormous credit, Anderson directs with a ton of confidence and not an ounce of bravado. This is only Anderson's second film (the first being the widely overlooked Hard Eight) and, quite refreshingly, he feels no need to "show off" here. Some critics up here on this crowded bandwagon have been calling Anderson "the next Spielberg" or "the next Tarantino" or "the next Scorsese." By this time next year, those same lazy critics will be using the term "the next Paul Thomas Anderson" for some new kid on the block.


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