In the mid-90's, now Academy Award nominated actor Mark Wahlberg was a fading pop star with an embarrassingly silly legacy in music. Jumping into the world of movies, he started with appearances here and there in regrettable movies. He found his groove opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries, but it was a starring role in 1997 that truly established his transformation.
Boogie Nights made Mark Wahlberg a movie star, and it made people realize what a remarkable talent Paul Thomas Anderson is. It is, to date, still the director's second best film.
Anderson (or PTA as he's often affectionately called) writes like Robert Altman and shoots like Martin Scorsese; creating a complete diorama of his subject like the former, while moving the narrative forward with the bustling energy of the latter. Not just the camerawork—the film opens with a 3-minute long shot through a nightclub introducing all of the characters, as a tip of the hat to Goodfellas—but also the meticulous detail, the frantic acting, immensely confrontational dialogue scenes and sudden unexpected bursts of violence. I can close my eyes and play spin-the-wheel with the scene selection menu, and any scene it lands on would be engrossing by itself—which is a quality that has made it a reliable favorite. It's good to have it handy.
Boogie Nights is not just a movie about a porn star's career, but a step in time to the period's porn industry. The thing I took away from it most is a sense of completion, with rich characters that skirt too close to tragedy—all of them are trapped by their lurid profession, unable to move past—but you can see how collectively they make up not just an industry, but a living community of people. There's the hopeful entrepreneur, the unrequited lover, the conflicted mother, the scorned husband, the lost child, the supportive friend; they are all of this before they are pornographers.
The lone exception is the star of this story, Wahlberg's super-endowed youngster Dirk Diggler, whose only reason of existence (and he doesn't have the capacity nor patience otherwise) is to become a star by any means necessary. While the other characters are held back in society by their casual flaunting of sexuality, Dirk has no interest of anything outside the legend of his own making, and suffers when he's separated from his sexual conquest. As other characters fall or grow, Dirk has to keep relying on his only reliable asset, safely secured in his underoos.
As (snicker) Marky Mark, Wahlberg relied heavily on a cocky, in-your-face persona to build his pop stardom. He brings the same quality to Dirk Diggler, and it fits like a, um, condom. I'm hard-pressed to name another performance by him since that's as convincing as it is here.
What's great about Boogie Nights' chronicling of pornography during this era is how different it all is to how the industry was at the time of the movie's release, let alone today. The porn industry today is widespread, with stars able to tow across mainstream lines, and with plenty of pornography made by and for women. Compared to its current state, Boogie Nights' vision of the porn world is a little more tawdry, which elicits a sense of condemnation that also comes, strangely, with nostalgia.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Given how different things are today (from porn's standing to Mark Wahlberg's position), I was hoping that there would be new retrospective features to examine the progress. Alas, this is just a quick port. All of the special features are from the 2007 2-disc DVD release—and all in standard definition.
Disappointing for fans of the film, perhaps, but it's rich enough to satisfy first-time buyers. There are two fun audio commentaries; one with PTA and another with the cast. There's deleted scenes abounds and a great Michael Penn music video shot by PTA and the Boogie Nights crew entirely in a single shot with no cuts.
The best features of all is "The John C. Reilly Files," a series of extended footage about 15 minutes long that has John C. Reilly riffing non-stop (most likely ad-libbed) in several different scenes. It's a real treat to watch Reilly on his game, and to see him appreciated enough to get his own features section in this ensemble movie.
The main upside of this Blu-ray release, naturally, is the enhanced picture quality, which gives a great pop to the film's colorful set design, from the lavish 70's kitsch to the over-the-top neon 80's. The groove of these eras are definitely captured.
"Boogie Nights" is on sale January 19, 2010 and is rated R. Drama. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, John C Reilly, Julianne Moore, Mark Wahlberg, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Thomas Jane, William H Macy.