Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Boogie Nights follows the same template as many other biopics, but everything feels amped up a level, probably because of the amount of drugs and the type of star our hero becomes. It’s a story that’s ultimately about unlikely (even if unsustainable) families, and the speed and absurdity with which Anderson tells this story, while familiar, ends up satirizing the whole rags-to-riches genre of movies.
If you strip away the details, this is a film about a hardworking kid, Eddie (Mark Wahlberg) who’s given a chance to make something of himself. Eventually he becomes a star, but the star burns too bright, and he crashes and burns as the world begins to pass him by. Boogie Nights mirrors’ its protagonist’s journey with that of the industry he finds himself in.
Eddie becomes Dirk Diggler, and he stars in the pornographic films of Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a sleezy producer-type whose sleeziness is only palatable in comparison to the sleeziness of his actual producing partner. Horner is a star director, possibly the best in the business from what we can tell. After producing his first film with newcomer Dirk Diggler, the publications praise his films like they’re the latest release from Steven Spielberg. Horner and his films exist in a world where, despite the adult content, they are as widely consumed as the most popular Netflix show today, at least that’s how it seems.
As Diggler goes, so does Horner, even though we can reasonably assume that he has been going for sometime now. The film takes place from 1977 to 1984, and as they enter the 80s, everything is going well, but there is a pressure for Horner to switch from shooting on film to shooting on VHS tape. Horner resists, citing film as a more pure, artful experience, even though the new video format allows for a longer recording time (much like digital today).
At their bests, Diggler and Horner are purists. They don’t just want to make porn, they want to make real movies. What’s so hilarious about this is how bad those movies are, even if they’re considered masterpieces within the adult film world. There is never really a moment to question the validity and quality of these films because if the world within Boogie Nights considers them good, then I did too.
The end result is a feeling of grime that touches not only the adult film industry but the movie industry as a whole. In this film, there is never any mention of Hollywood movies. This is a world all about porn, and despite Dirk’s and Buck’s (Don Cheadle) insistence that they’re actors, they seem to consider adult films the pinnacle of their art. When Dirk’s career flames out following a fight with Horner, he turns to music rather than looking to perform in mainstream cinema. There’s probably an extremely low (to none) chance that Dirk could survive as an actor in non-adult films, but music is equally as inaccessible to him (he’s a terrible singer), though he just doesn’t know it yet.
There are several sequences in Boogie Nights that cut back and forth between scenes of different characters in different locations but feeling the same emotions. In one instance, we see Dirk and his friends snorting cocaine in a montage demonstrating their increasing dependence on the drug and growing instability, and at the same time we see a similarly drug-fueled interaction between Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham), two members of Jack Horner’s adult film family, as they profess their shared love and confidence that they can do anything they set their mind to.
Their mania is enough to keep us at a distance, recognizing this all as an illusion, even as they grow more and more excitable. These sequences and montages force us to consider the falseness of what they claim and to distrust these characters. I’m sure most of the viewing audience understands that lack of appeal of adult films and performing in adult films, but for the first half of the film it’s hard not to enjoy the weird ride alongside Dirk and his friends. We’re right there with him for a time, and then the story completely undercuts all of this, showing us that it was never sustainable or even authentic from the start.
And yet this fallout is to be expected if you’ve seen any kind of movie biopic. There is the rise and the fall before we get the redemption. It’s just that in Boogie Nights the rise is so quick (partially because of how quickly we jump through time), and the fall is so sudden it’s almost funny.
The film as a whole seems to authenticate the adult film industry, showing these people as broken, desperate, manic but ultimately real, and then the film reveals that it was all just a trick, like those eventually performed by Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), another adult film star who really just wants to be a magician. There is something genuinely funny about the weight and importance placed on these films, only for us to watch the production of one take place in a small basement with crappy acting and awkward dialogue. In the same moment we recognize the importance of the scene to Dirk but also the relative meaninglessness of the adult art to the audience.
Ultimately these are just films that guys use for brief sexual gratification and nothing more, even if Horner and Dirk have bigger aspirations for this medium. After the fallout and Dirk’s redemption (returning to Horner’s embrace, begging for a second chance), there is this sense that everything Paul Thomas Anderson has shown us is more about the movie industry as a whole and not just the smaller sect of adult films.
Boogie Nights ends with Dirk Diggler reciting his rehearsed lines for an upcoming scene to himself in the mirror of his dressing room. The scene bares a strong resemblance to the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), in which De Niro’s Jake La Motta, already fallen from grace, rehearses Marlon Brando’s speech from the end of On The Waterfront to himself in the mirror performing at one of his chain nightclubs.
In the scene from Raging Bull, La Motta’s speech shows that he doesn’t recognize the role he played in his own downfall. He sees himself as a victim and not a reason he’s so alone, unaware of how he pushed away everyone who was close to him. In short, he’s in extreme denial, and all he thinks he’s doing is getting ready for another boxing-like performance.
In Boogie Nights, Diggler, despite the words he’s saying, gives the same speech to himself. He’s psyching himself up for this latest performance, inflating his own ego because it’s what he needs to keep going. He shadowboxes the air, like La Motta, and then he finally reveals his (prosthetic) penis, which has been hinted at throughout the film as freakishly large. Dirk’s head is out of frame in this last shot because all that matters is his body, not Dirk himself. He repeats “I am a star,” before heading out to set, and the film ends.
Even as Dirk puts himself back together, we’re left with the memory of the cracks in his life. He may be optimistic that everything is looking up for him again, just like Horner is or anyone else in their assembled family, but the audience sees through it. This is all just a delusion on their part, one that won’t keep up for long whether because of drug abuse or simply getting older in an industry that doesn’t reward such a thing.
The only way to survive in such a world, I’d say, is to fool yourself into thinking it will go on forever. Either that or you find real meaning in the work you make, knowing it can be successful despite or because of its impermanence, but because this is about adult films, it’s safe to say that such meaning is hard to find unless you’re the type of person who thinks the earth is flat.