Lurking with a magical, unspoken sophistication that only Paul Thomas Anderson can conjure, “Boogie Nights” is effortless cool, managing to be emotionally poignant without dramatic hampers or harangues. You could say “Boogie Nights” is quintessential Anderson because the movie is not actually about what its about: The porn industry is just the vessel for this movie to travel, its true crux built upon its passengers inability to have an honest conversation, even after serving as dedicated seamen side-by-side for two decades.
It’s the 1970s, the height of the golden era of porn, where anonymous, trenchcoated denizens happily huddled side-by-side to stare at a big screen and watch semi-famous porn stars have sex. In Burbank, studio head Jack Warner is king, but five miles over in Reseda, porn maestro Jack Horner reigns supreme in a whole different world, a devoted director who’d quickly be called the “Burt Reynolds of porn” if Jack himself weren’t actually played by Burt Reynolds. While hanging with Amber Waves, his motherly yet immature performer played by Julianne Moore, Jack crosses paths with dimwitted 17-year-old bus boy Eddie Adams, who gladly will break restaurant health codes by whipping his dick out just to earn a few bucks.
Jack recruits Eddie to his coitus cavalcade, where he meets other wayward souls like Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a high school drop out whom constantly glides around on skates, and Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), a cowboy fashioned pornstar always at a crossroads with his dreams and identity. Their days are spent banging in front of cameras and sipping sloppy margaritas out back by the pool, each grappled by a silent concern or trauma that might kill the vibe and hard-ons if they ever addressed it out loud.
Despite having all probably been inside of each other, it’s remarkable how “Boogie Nights” characters have so much difficulty having a simple conversation. Eddie aka Dirk Diggler, is thwarted by the obnoxious grinding of Reed’s margarita maker when trying to have a friendly conversation. The closeted Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is told to shut up when he confesses his love to Dirk, and completely ignores a chance for a conversation with a friendly new girl. Rollergirl skates out of school not after a classmate says something foul, but only makes profane gestures with his mouth and hands.
Dirk’s parents don’t even share more than a sentence each with each other, and Amber so desperately wants to say hi to her distant son but misses a phone call from him because too many people in a room are talking. Tragically, the only person who speaks to what’s on their mind is Little Bill (William H. Macy), an assistant director who constantly catches his wife in unfavorable positions boning much younger men. When he yells at her and complains to others, his plight is completely ignored. It’s no coincidence that when he does commit suicide, its by shooting himself in the mouth.
But as the silent 70s slunk out the back, the loudmouth 80s happily barged in the front door. Characters are now embracing the power of their voice, so coked-up they’re speaking a thousand words a minute. Dirk and Reed berate a recording studio owner for not giving them access to their recorded voice tapes, and their lowlife drug dealer Todd Parker (Thomas Jane) botches what would have been a relatively easy drug swindle if it weren’t for his greedy, loudmouthed antics. Amber speaks own her own behalf against her husband and his lawyer, but has her pleas immediately drowned out, leaving her to sob inconsolably outside the courthouse without anyone to provide verbal or emotional support.
When one of Jack’s senior associates gets arrested for having sex with an underage girl, the associate continues talking, asking Jack if they’re still friends, even though he knows Jack can’t hear him on the other side of the prison glass. And Jack, the perennial father figure to all the misfits crashing in his pad, has his once-impenetrable verbal command denied when Dirk refuses to listen to him. Buck summons the courage to pitch a bank about his stereo store idea, but his ideas are immediately voided once the banker finds out about his porn star past. Even as a robber is pointing a gun at his head, Buck tries to tell a donut shop patron not to fire back at the robber, with the immediate gunfire leaving him bloodied and helpless. Buck sees the bag of stolen money lying on the floor, knowing that it’s his since there’s no one else to say anything.
It’s easy to think that this story is one that only pertains to the 1970s and 80s. “Boogie Nights'” glistening fashion and baby boomer soundtrack immediately puts us in a nostalgic mindset, allowing us to write off the film as an inspired ode to a bygone era But lurking underneath its disco dance surface are much deeper truths about the pain of being friendly but not friends, the ability to exchange information but the denial of conversation. “Boogie Nights” could be seen as the ultimate cinematic representation of Billy Joel’s idiom, “they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.”
But while Joel argued that loneliness could be quenched by other isolated souls drinking the same sorrows, “Boogie Nights” proclaims that seeking refuge with other isolated souls only exacerbates our solitude. The film’s shift from the 1970s theater era to the 80s VCR rise also echo the characters’ unwillingness to conform and embrace domesticity, even though they were already essentially living as a family of sorts with defined roles in a nice suburban area. And as the movie comes to a close, everyone is left back in their traditional roles despite their advances, their dreams semi-accomplished while celebrating with almost-friends, a harrowing reminder of a better sun that will never rise.