Does size matter?
When it comes to movies, it can't hurt. And when it comes to "Boogie Nights," a sprawling epic documenting the life and death of the 1970s, it is more than given its due.
Filmed with brash exuberance by 27-year-old director Paul Thomas Anderson, and filled with career-defining performances,
"Boogie Nights" gives the Hollywood star-making fable a seedy touch by setting it in the tawdry world of pornographic film.
Audacious in its subject matter, unapologetically referential in its cinematic approach, "Boogie Nights" is a full-frontal travelogue through the louche carnality of the 1970s, a paean to porn, disco and other discredited cultural forms. It's a grand, sweeping nostalgia trip that evokes the sickness of an era even as it tries to find its essential humanity.
"Boogie Nights," which Anderson also wrote, tells the story of a group of X-rated filmmakers who, damaged by life and limitations of intellect and character, cleave unto one another as a sort of chosen family.
There's the patriarch, producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), and the Mommy figure, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). Their clan includes Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who will take off anything at any time, save for her roller skates; Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), an actor whose real passion lies in consumer electronics; and Little Bill (William H. Macy), Jack's assistant, whose nymphomaniac wife drives him to distraction and worse.
Together they drink, drug and tell themselves that they're on the cusp of something greater, something, in Jack Horner's words, "true and right and dramatic." Any comparisons between their mutual delusion and that of Hollywood at large must be purely intentional.
It's not exactly the stuff of Norman Rockwell, but it's enough for Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a busboy at the group's disco hangout who hustles a little bit on the side. He may not be the brightest bulb on the marquee, but he knows what he's got: the sort of endowment below the waist that would make Jack Horner swoon in a daze of dollar signs.
"Everyone is blessed with one special thing," Adams explains. Once initiated into the fold, Adams promptly changes his name to Dirk Diggler and commences his meteoric rise to porn stardom, followed by his inevitable fall from even that tarnished state of grace.
From the long, bravura tracking shot through a nightclub that launches "Boogie Nights," to its motley extended "family" and Anderson's anthropological interest in their culture, he pays explicit homage to Robert Altman's "Nashville" and the films of Martin Scorsese. But he owes just as much to such great show business-corruption narratives as "A Star Is Born."
He even finds time to cop a musical riff from "The Sweet Smell of Success" in the midst of a soundtrack that's an orgy of so-bad-it's-good '70s rock.
In fact, Anderson's use of other peoples' work, as well as his reliance on music to sell the movie (the "Boogie Nights" music supervisor is Karyn Rachtman, of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" fame), is at times a distracting crutch.
But in addition to his superficial talent for choosing references well, Anderson shows that he's got the makings of a very good filmmaker. For one thing, he has elicited some of the strongest performances of their careers from his cast members.
Rather than go with the cheap and easy caricature, Burt Reynolds plays Horner with an understated avuncularity; Julianne Moore is a paragon of matronly composure even while she delivers some of the film's most graphic dialogue (what Anderson gives up in not showing much actual sex he more than makes up for in vulgarity).
And Wahlberg, whose career from rapper to underwear model to the screen has been less than revelatory thus far, carries "Boogie Nights" with disarming, dim-witted aplomb.
Anderson makes ingenious use of color -- super-saturated or sun-bleached, always jarringly vibrant -- to evoke the jangly, coked-up energy of the time.
And he is willing to let moments go on just a tad longer than is entirely comfortable. This was a time that promised the party would never end, and Anderson's scenes don't. Instead, they move with languid disregard for the crash that will surely come.
Later, when video, crack cocaine, corporate rock and AIDS loom like the four horsemen, and hazy days and endless nights have given way to desperation and greed, Anderson makes sure we're there for every tortured death rattle.
The beginning of the end -- at a drug dealer's house where Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" is punctuated by randomly detonated firecrackers -- is one of the most unsettling and brilliant scenes of this year.
Anyone who managed to outlive the 1970s' myriad casualties may find it troubling that a kid who was barely toddling back then would choose to romanticize a time of such sleaze, $H selfishness and self-destruction.
And Anderson does often resemble the directorial equivalent of an enabler: He simply can't bring himself to write an unhappy ending for his characters, and he doesn't dwell much on the histories and interior lives that keep them in such plush squalor.
That puts the onus of a moral judgment squarely where it belongs, with the audience. This, more than narrative prowess or technical flair, might be Anderson's most important accomplishment in "Boogie Nights," which trusts filmgoers to come to their own conclusions.
And Anderson says it all with the film's confrontational (and, yes, prosthetic) final image: We may want to consider for a moment before condemning Jack Horner and his brood, lest our own prurient curiosities be judged.
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Released by New Line Cinema
Rated R (sex scenes with explicit dialogue, nudity, drug use, language and violence)
Sun score: *** 1/2
Pub Date: 10/30/97