Ah the 70s… the greatest era for movies, both mainstream & porn.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakthrough feature is an impeccably produced homage to the ‘Golden Age of Porn’ when adult films garnered almost as much attention as Hollywood features, and even proved to be competitive in production & technical values. Capturing the style & ethos of its era with accuracy and offering an interesting glimpse into the backstage routine of pornography business, all through the eyes of a newcomer, Boogie Nights also makes up for a fascinating character study.
Set in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley during the 1970s, the story follows a young man who piques the interest of an adult filmmaker who then takes the promising talent under his wing. Through his good looks, youthful charisma & gifted asset, this new kid on the block quickly rises to the top of the porn industry as “Dirk Diggler”, finding fame, friends & all the luxuries of a lavish lifestyle. But it all comes crashing down for him with the advent of the 1980s & its excess culture.
Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Boogie Nights is only his sophomore effort and yet the rich, deftly scripted characters he brings to life on the screen and the exuberance with which he illustrates the bygone era & its distinct allure, almost with a touch of melancholic nostalgia, makes it look like the work of an established auteur. The focus is always on the human qualities of the characters involved as Anderson is understanding, empathetic & nonjudgmental in his portrait of porn stars and shows that beneath the surface, their struggle is no different than any of us.
The film absolutely nails the brief when it comes to recreating its period setting, for every image brims with 1970s pop culture and maintains a close proximity with the style & details of that decade. Cinematography makes its mark within the opening segment with a long unbroken take that introduces all the relevant characters in a fluid fashion. And it only gets better from there as the camera is manoeuvred with precision for the remainder of its runtime, employing extended takes, controlled zooms & smooth tracking to capture the unfolding drama like a silent observer.
Also notable is the grainy texture & slightly deteriorated quality of porn reels which gives those moments an authenticity of their own. Editing allows enough space for every character to breathe and its steady pacing keeps the narrative flow uniform. Though the interest is almost never lost, its 155 minutes runtime still ends up feeling slightly excessive. The background score & incorporated songs are in sync with the depicted timeline and gives the whole story a flavourful appeal. And also worthy of a mention is its period-specific costumes that further assist in transporting the viewers back to the 1970s.
Coming to the performances, Boogie Nights is an acting powerhouse that features an outstanding ensemble in Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall & Alfred Molina, and every single one of them play their part to near-perfection. Wahlberg is a revelation in the leading role and embraces his character with flamboyant confidence. Reynolds is even better as the adult film director who believes that porn can be more than just gratuitous sex. Moore brings a caring, maternal sensibility to her role while Graham plays Rollergirl with fine subtleness. The rest of the cast is no slouch and chip in with commendable inputs.
On an overall scale, Boogie Nights is a masterly directed, smartly scripted, brilliantly photographed, calmly edited & strongly performed drama that packs an interesting set of full-fledged, lifelike characters with compelling emotional arcs whose motives & actions are the driving force behind this narrative. Crafted with passion, told with patience & paying a genuine tribute to the “porno chic” era, the film establishes the then-new filmmaker as a wunderkind and presents him in complete control of his fledgling craft. A quality example of assured storytelling that scores high marks in all departments of filmmaking, Boogie Nights remains one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest directorial efforts, and is one of the best all-round films of its decade. Highly recommended.