Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Twenty-Two

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#22 — Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson builds Boogie Nights with the exuberant fervor of someone who may never again be given access to a movie camera. From the extended tracking shot that opens the film–a sequence that by its very nature calls to mind the runaway train audacity of directors like Orson Welles and Robert Altman who accomplished similar technical feats in some of their finest efforts–to the closing moment directly referencing Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Anderson crafts his film like a breathless lecture on everything he loves about movies. His presence is so strong that he may as well be an additional spectral character in the film, ushering people through doorways and gates into new scenes, giddily pointing out the mounds of detail at the fringes of the frame, joyously whispering “get a load of this” right before the grandest, most wonderfully ridiculous set pieces. He keeps tossing lit firecrackers at the audience, an action that can be best explained with a shrug and the flat statement, “He’s Paul Thomas Anderson.”

Inspired by the rise, slump and shriveling of nineteen-seventies and eighties porn actor John Holmes, Boogie Nights casts Mark Wahlberg as a nightclub busboy who has a prodigious physical gift that captures the attention of an X-rated impresario, played with lovely ease by Burt Reynolds. The movie follows Wahlberg’s character, who notably renames himself Dirk Diggler, as he plunges deeply into the splendorous decadence of being a celebrated star of adult films, lavishing in sun-dappled pool parties and letting his ego swell as befits a man who’s very occupation hinges on his ability to project enviably, unstoppable sexual prowess. Anderson doesn’t approach this world without condescension. The glimpses of the dirty movies starring Diggler and his cohorts have a satiric edge in their expert mimicry. However, he does depict it all with a sympathetic enthusiasm, an appreciative understanding that the small army of characters moving through the film believe in their art as surely as Anderson himself does. When Reynolds’ Jack Horner is reduced to the cheap gimmicky of trolling streets in a stretch limo to recruit amateurs to flop carelessly atop a member of his stock company of sultry beauties for videos of voyeuristic sleaze, Anderson frames it as a tragic betrayal of the character’s honest ambition. He’s an artist who’s been reduced to making cheap porn.

Boogie Nights is a seemingly endless hallway filled with gorgeously ornate doors, a treasure behind each one. Anderson exults in the sorcery he can craft with his camera, but he’s never so caught up in constructing his imagery that he forgets the value of giving his actors rich, interesting characters to play. Besides Reynolds and Wahlberg, who plays his part with a uniquely effusive sincerity, the film offers plum roles for a group of actors that read like the callsheet a participant with enviable taste might assemble in a Fantasy Filmmaking league. He gives each performer some juicy moments and the room to make the most of them. It’s recognition that every bit of business can add to the potency of the film, the thoroughness of Anderson’s creation. This was his second feature film, and the one that really grabbed people’s attention, decisively announcing that Anderson was a director worthy of true devotion. Suddenly his name seemed to be written in bright blue neon lights with a purple outline. And fireworks were sure to follow.

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