Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) is a bitingly funny, boldly crafted melodrama that insists less is not more – more is more. As in, thirteen inches more. As in, more characters. More storylines. More virtuosic camera moves. More sex. More nudity. More passion. More grit. More drama. More vulgarity. More drugs. More everything. The result is a lengthy, highly ambitious project that unfolds like a Robert Altman film, interweaving a myriad of characters and storylines so that they compliment the material in a comparative and contrasting manner. This keen approach echoes the half & half structure and provides insightful commentary on themes regarding family and sexuality.
That “family” happens to be a disparate group of filmmakers and artists (or pornographers and porn-stars, if you prefer) who were somehow lucky enough to find each other in the seedy underbelly of the porn world during the late 70’s and early 80’s. These dysfunctional characters are introduced with a feverish pizazz in an opening that demonstrably puts the “fun” in funky. This dazzling sequence establishes the environment in such a captivating way that it allows the audience to fully immerse itself in this unsavory, unsettling world.
Helping these matters are the incredible performances lent by the stellar cast, all melding perfectly in their roles. These memorable portrayals are offered by Burt Reynolds; John C. Reilly; Don Cheadle; Heather Graham; William H. Macy; Julianne Moore; Philip Seymour Hoffman; Alfred Molina; Mark Wahlberg (and many more). Now, if that sounds like a lot of characters and a lot of well-respected actors, that’s because it is. Not only that, but they all relish their moments on-screen and turn this eclectic group of what could have been quirky caricatures, into fully developed human beings with depth and complexity.
Speaking of depth, it is rumored that some of the sex in this film wasn’t exactly “acted.” In other words, the talent was sometimes totally fucking on-screen. Like, for real, real. (Talk about method acting!) Whether that rumor is based in truth or not is a moot point, because the otherwise brutally honest approach permeates the entire film and the consequence is a certain rawness that may alienate some viewers. But let’s face it. Boogie Nights is about porn. So if nudity, drugs, and vulgarity offend you, then this movie wouldn’t be appropriate regardless of what was shown on-screen or how real the sex was.
However, if you are able to look past the sex, what awaits you is some very effective melodrama, which contrasts sharply with a steady stream of humor. The result is a synthesis that is sometimes uneven, but is ultimately held together by a smart score and an exhilarating soundtrack. This clashing of unlikely elements (the melodrama and the comedy) is further grounded by the forceful performances as aforementioned, and the self-assured direction provided by Paul Thomas Anderson. It is easy to imagine this all going wrong if it were in lesser hands, especially when considering Boogie Nights doesn’t depend on an overly explicit plot to move the action forward. Rather, it appears to be character-driven, giving Anderson the opportunity to take his time in developing this myriad of characters and the world in which they reside. Conversely, this sometimes makes for a slower, more leisurely pace, which may turn off some impatient viewers. This is precisely why the captivating opening sequence is so vitally important, because it gives the audience a reason to be patient. Without it, the audience would not be as forgiving, and would possibly be dazed and confused by the start of the second act. But this is not the case, and while the story sometimes feels stagnant, it is always steadily thrusting forward and the end satisfyingly pays off the patience of the viewer.
Which brings me to the inflammatory punctuation that brings Boogie Nights to a close. Of course what I’m talking about is the on-screen reveal of that “one special thing” Dirk Diggler was blessed with. I mentioned that the end is satisfying, but I feel ambivalent to whether this shocking reveal is the best way to finish off the movie. In fact, I wonder if the less is more approach would have been more effective here. After all, some things that are left off-screen make for an even more vivid image in the mind. I don’t know. Maybe the shock-factor is the suitable pay-off for a movie that is otherwise raw and unflinching. In this case, perhaps more IS more.