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Metro Pulse Movie Guru

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson gives the Guru some good vibes.

By Zak Weisfeld

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  While the dream of the Great American Novel may have vanished with Prohibition, or at least the 1980s, the dream of the Great American Movie is still fresh in our minds. Not twenty years ago it seemed as though the world of cinema was rotten with potential, if not actual, greatness. Titans like Altman, Scorcese, Kubrick, Coppola, and Malick strolled proudly in the venal nest of Hollywood, not to mention the horde of unwashed European auteurs massing at the gates.

Raw cinematic talent seemed almost commonplace (at least that's what my elders tell me) and then came Star Wars and the 1980s, and the great ones toppled or vanished, returning only rarely—sometimes to renew their myth, more often to destroy it.

But the taste of greatness is kept in our mouths by video and cable, though there's nothing to wash it down with. We still go to the movies every weekend, pay for the ticket, sit in the darkened theater, and hope. Then we come home and watch Nashville, Taxi Driver, or Badlands and stare at these relics like Egyptians gawking at the pyramids, wondering what has been lost.

With Boogie Nights, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, wants us to believe that maybe nothing has.

Anderson announces his intentions in the stunning opening sequence, borrowed from Altman, who borrowed it from Welles. In a single sweeping shot, Anderson takes us out of the eternal suburbs of Los Angeles and into a magical, glamorous, body-hugging polyester-dressed world of a disco nightclub. And here is where Boogie Nights begins—in the world of late '70s pornographic films. The movie charts the twisted ride from the golden age of film and disco to the dark days of video and Reagan.

In this marginal world Anderson finds the themes that stake out the territory of The Great American Movie: youth, celebrity, sex, family, sex, pride, betrayal, redemption, sex, and death. Anderson tackles them with a sprawling, Altman-esque flair—he works with a diverse ensemble cast and multiple story lines, but at the heart of the movie is the story of Eddie Adams, a preternaturally well-endowed young man from the suburb of Torrance.

Anderson makes good use of Mark Wahlberg as Eddie. Somehow he manages to trick Wahlberg out of his adolescent tough-guy posturing and into a truly touching naiveté. And while Wahlberg may not be Anderson's Al Pacino, he proves himself to be a much better actor than any reasonable person would have expected.

If Boogie Nights is responsible for launching a strong career for Wahlberg, it should do even more impressive things for Burt Reynolds. Reynolds plays silver-haired porn director Jack Horner with an understated confidence that Gene Hackman could learn a lot from. Reynolds is the anchor of the film, the calm center around which whirl the strange young lives of the cast of his films.

Together, Wahlberg and Reynolds make it easy to get inside the world of adult movies. With few exceptions the characters in the movie are just simple people who want to live the American dream of stardom, but whose only talent is being able to have sex while people watch. It is perhaps Anderson's greatest credit that he rarely allows the movie to snicker at these basically dumb people, and he never allows us to judge them.

Boogie Nights is filled with great performances, especially the one by Juilianne Moore, who plays Amber Waves, the matriarch and principal star of Horner's films; Heather Graham who plays porn ingenue Rollergirl; and John Reilly as Reed Rothschild, Eddie Adam's sidekick.

Despite the power of the performances, Boogie Nights begins to lose some of its steam two-thirds of the way through its almost three-hour running time. In portraying Eddie's fall, Anderson turns to clichés that he had so adroitly avoided in the rest of the film. For while Altman may have influenced the structure of the film, much of the action and pacing are clearly inherited from Scorcese. But in Boogie Nights the staccato punch of a shootout is a little depressing. The violence feels...not gratuitous, but mandatory, as though Anderson were observing some rigid rule of the third act: There Must be Gunplay.

As the movie starts to wrap up it becomes clear that some of the story lines Anderson juggled so brilliantly in the beginning have less and less relevance to the end. Indeed, it comes to seem as though one or two could be cut completely with little or no effect on the rest of the movie.

Nonetheless, Anderson deserves a big reward for even trying to make a movie this good. If Boogie Nights doesn't quite sate our appetite for The Great American Movie, it still marks the emergence of a talent that should be exciting to watch grow and a brilliant flash of color in the cold, rainy days of fall.

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