"I got a feeling that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out."
The best director currently making motion pictures is Paul Thomas Anderson. This is an indisputable fact in my book. There is quite simply no one better, and while he lacks the prolificness of many of his contemporaries, when he does put out a film, you can bet it's going to be twice as ambitious as anything they've done in the interim. Now, ambition alone does not a great film make, but Anderson's preternatural gift for momentum propels every one of his films into masterpiece territory.
Boogie Nights is as balanced a film as has ever been made. Divided neatly into two halves, it tells the tale of the adult film industry in the glory days of the 1970s and the devastating lows of the early 1980s. The film opens with the creakiest organ music this side of the circus, and perfectly sets the tone for the entire film. The porn industry was the biggest circus of all in its heyday, and the opening three and a half minute tracking shot that follows beautifully introduces virtually every main character. Anderson lets you know immediately that you are in good hands.
The film tells of the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of a kid named Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) who is discovered as a dishwasher in a nightclub by adult filmmaker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, in the best performance of his career). There's no way to put this politely, so I'll just say it. Eddie is blessed with a gigantic cock, and Jack offers to bring him into his kingdom and make him a star. He renames himself Dirk Diggler and sets off for the top of the mountain.
The film is populated with an amazing supporting cast of fellow porn stars from Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham), Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), & Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), as well as various crew members & hangers-on like Little Bill (William H. Macy), Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Maurice (Luis Guzman) and countless others.
Anderson very definitely works in the mold of filmmakers before him, owing a visual debt to Scorsese, Kubrick & Truffuat, but his biggest influence on this film in particular is Robert Altman's Nashville exposing the seamy underbelly of an industry. Now porn never had the squeaky clean reputation that country music did, but the film firmly establishes Jack Horner as a good filmmaker, interested in the art and creation of film. Therefore as drugs, violence & the rise of video begin to pose threats to his kingdom, it can hold the early parts of the film up in stark contrast as the good old days.
Being only Anderson's second feature as a director, he does a lot of showing off as a director, and I don't mean that in a bad way. His technique is sound, but he's not above letting you know how good he is behind the camera. For example, the way he apes the tracking shot that follows the girl into the pool from I Am Cuba let's you know that he's both flashy & literate. He works here with his longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit to create a film akin to the kind that Jack Horner himself is professing to want to make, full of the shadows of life. In other words, it's gorgeously filmed as well as masterfully edited by his longtime editor Dylan Tichenor.
The transition from the 70s to the 80s is as good a transition as any other ever put on film. It lets you know exactly where things are headed, and it's both bold and ominous. He was also laying the groundwork for his next film (and his true masterpiece) Magnolia, with the sequence where Dirk is beat up by the hoods, intercut with Jack & Rollergirl beating up the kid from her school, and how that all intercuts with Buck going to the donut shop. It's a nice moment of overlap here, but as I said, he would perfect this overlap two years later.
The performances are great all across the board. Reynolds & Moore were both robbed of Oscar recognition for the their work, and I would almost say Reynolds more so. He is phenomenal here, never verging into creep territory, always remaining the loving, concerned and doting father figure that all these kids need. Wahlberg hadn't truly found his footing yet as an actor, and he's better in the early parts of the film when he can coast on his charisma, but you can see the seeds being planted here for the actor he'd become. John C. Reilly is a firecracker on screen, stealing every scene he's in, along with Hoffman & Cheadle who are great as always, and Alfred Molina gets a brilliant seven minute scene late in the film that gets burned into your memory the moment it ends.
These are all great actors working at the top of their craft, but this is ultimately Anderson's show. This is his film top to bottom and he deserves all the credit in the world for making it work as well as it does. This is easily one of the best films of the nineties, a decade with no shortage of masterpieces, and it's worth your time to revisit again and again.