By ANDREW HERMANN
Blast Boston Bureau
Unless you live in a biodome, you've probably already heard at
least one of two things about the film "Boogie Nights":
1) Gushing raves from critics in all corners.
2) Much rumor and innuendo about Mark Wahlberg's penis.
Let's the set the record straight on both counts.
First: yes, the Artist Formerly Known as Marky Mark flashes the
goods, and no, it's not really his. Kudos to the special effects
department, however; Wahlberg's prosthetic schlong is almost more
lifelike than, say, Harvey Keitel's real one.
Second: yes, "Boogie Nights" is a very good film, but it ain't all
that. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is yet another in the
growing ranks of savvy young filmmakers who, consciously or no,
have learned that the best way to induce Pavlovian drooling in film
critics is to rip off, lampoon, and one-up earlier, better films.
So unless you're a real connoisseur of Scorsese-esque single-take
tracking shots, Altman-esque cinema verite half-intelligible
conversations, or Tarantino-esque ironic soundtrack juxtapositions
(the suitably inappropriate accompaniment to the mayhem here comes
courtesy of Nena, whose "99 Luftballoons" was, unfortunately for
Anderson, already used to similar and better effect by John Cusack
in "Grosse Pointe Blank" earlier this year), you're likely to miss
a great deal of what the critics have been getting so hot and
So what is there for the rest of us to like about "Boogie Nights"?
Well, there's the '70's nostalgia thing. But even that has been
somewhat overhyped; the film's timeline actually moves from 1977 to
1984, so leisurewear fans will have to get their fix in the first
ninety minutes. It's worth noting, however, that "Boogie Nights"
is the first in the recent wave of retro flicks to successfully
portray the early '80's as an alien culture on par with the worst
of the Disco Era. The polo shirts, relaxed perms, and Night Ranger
power ballads of the film's tail end are every bit as squirm-
inducing as the feathered hair and platform shoes of the first
There's also the titillation factor: "Boogie Nights" is, after
all, a "respectable" film about the porn industry, a chance for all
of us who are too embarrassed to venture into that back room at the
video store to get our rocks off at the arthouse cinema. Here
again, however, T&A-seekers will likely be disappointed. "Boogie
Nights" makes a very compelling case for what many an old fuddy-
duddy among us has long maintained--namely, that porno flicks
aren't all that sexy. Sex in the film is mainly used for comic
effect, as with a running gag that involves professional sad-sack
William H. Macy (here playing a mustachioed sad-sack called Little
Bill) continually discovering his wife in flagrante delicto with
younger, studlier men. The only full seduction-to-orgasm sex scene
in the entire film happens during the shooting of young stallion
Dirk Diggler's (Wahlberg, in an elegantly coiffed Greg Brady wig)
first feature, and, with the huddled film crew and deliberately
terrible acting, it's a strangely bloodless set piece ("We didn't
get the cum shot!"). Indie film sex-fiends will just have to wait
for "Kama Sutra" to come out on video.
What saves "Boogie Nights"--and despite its many excesses and its
dubious attempt to reinvent the late '70's as an age of innocence,
it mostly works--is Anderson's flair for characterization and
storytelling. It also doesn't hurt that he's got an outstanding,
fearless ensemble cast. Even when they're trapped in cinematic
cliches, these actors and the characters Anderson has given them
are vivid and wholly original.
Everyone's going to talk about Wahlberg, who dares to parade around
in tight underwear, sing badly, get down, and generally make fun of
his own image even as he's totally inhabiting the confused, well-
intentioned Dirk. Everyone's also going to talk about Burt
Reynolds, who does indeed redeem himself from every "Cannonball
Run" movie in one fell swoop with his utterly convincing XXX
impresario Jack Horner. But Wahlberg and Reynolds are just two
drops of a whole bucket full of great performances. There's
literally too many of them to mention in a single review, but
here's a few highlights: Julianne Moore, an unlikely choice to
play Horner's superstar vixen Amber Waves, pulls off the role with
a compelling mix of fragility and earthiness. Heather Graham, as
Rollergirl, looks and acts the part of free-love nymphet and then
gradually, shockingly peels away the layers to a bitter,
traumatized core. Don Cheadle takes Buck, Anderson's closest
approach to stock character shtick, and invests his fashion-victim
absurdity with genuine soul-searching pathos. And veteran
character actor Robert Ridgely, who died soon after completing this
film, pulls off the seemingly impossible, making us feel sympathy
for a fat-cat pedophile named the Colonel.
So "Boogie Nights" is definitely worth seeing, if not for the
reasons you might expect. If you go, just be sure to take some
dramamine in preparation for all those wild camera swings and
tracking shots. And guys, you might want to avoid the supersize
beverages at the concession stand; after you see Wahlberg whip out
his massive prothesis, you're likely to contract a major case of
the pee-shies in the men's room.