For my part, Paul Thomas Anderson is the most exciting director working today. I'll even go so far as to say that he could end up one of the best directors of all time. Now you and I both know how absurd it is to make this claim about any director, and that it's nothing more than an opinion. Still, it gives a pretty clear indication of my feelings on the man and his work. In fifteen years, P.T. has directed five features; one a solid genre flick which nobody has seen, another holds the clear frontrunner for Adam Sandler's best performance of all time, and the other three are Oscar nominees, the last of which won two, despite losing Best Picture. It's hard to appreciate this sort of success while still in the heart of a man's career, but assuming the trajectory holds, we'll all surely be talking about it years from now.
Anderson may fly a bit under the radar of the standard filmgoer; he doesn't have the recognizable aesthetic of a Wes Anderson, or the Tarantino excess of personality. But there's no denying that these are his contemporaries, and making a case for P.T. as the best of the bunch isn't terribly difficult. That case would surely begin with an examination of Boogie Nights, Anderson's dark and hilarious pornographic melodrama. In the shadow of his later, better films, Boogie Nights is only slightly less fantastic, less impressive, less finished. Nonetheless, it is an alarmingly great flick from a sophomore director, and properly kicks off the career of our generation's Martin Scorcese.
In 1997, Mark Wahlberg was 26 and five films into a prolific career. Fear made his transition from music to film official, but it was Boogie Nights that alerted Hollywood and the world to his talent as an actor. Wahlberg's depiction of the blessedly-endowed Dirk Diggler sits easily in the top performances of his career. Beginning the film as the naïve and beautiful Eddie Adams, Wahlberg takes the character through frantic highs and lows, ending it years later with a broken and hopeful Dirk, and his elephantine schlong. And Wahlberg's is surely not the only notable performance in the film. Burt Reynolds' Jack Horner and Julianne Moore's Amber Waves earned both of them Oscar nominations, and outside of these big three you'll find names like John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Luis Guzmán, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Melora Walters, Philip Baker Hall, Tom Janeand Alfred Molina, all doing great work. A trend in all of Anderson's films is great performance, and though he surely surrounds himself with immensely talented actors, at some point you simply have to give the man credit for pulling the best out of his talent. Getting Philip Seymour-Hoffman to do great work is one thing, but pushing Mark Wahlberg towards arguably the best performance of his career, in his fifth film… that is un-quantifiable talent.
Boogie Nights is a raw flick, not just brimming with sex and violence but portraying them so casually, with such self-satisfied nonchalance, the last thing in the world you would want to reveal to your fellow viewers is unease or offense, lest you discover that you're the square of your group. The difference between violence here and the violence of a Tarantino film is that Anderson's portrayals of blood are the means to an end, and never the end themselves. Tarantino is an excellent filmmaker, but his devotion to violence borders on that of a horror auteur. This may seem a minor distinction, but it can be the difference between a film about pain and hurt and a film about everything. Violence exists, and a good director understands that it should serve to enhance and coexist with all the other elements of life that make us feel something. The violence in Boogie Nights may leave little to the imagination, but it serves its purpose masterfully. The same is true for sex. To suggest that Anderson's portrayals of sex are simply pornographic, or even that they all fall into the same category does a huge disservice to the film. A broad range of sex and sexuality is on display here, from sexy pillow talk to public deflowering (of a sort) to driveway sex with a crowd. The complexity of relationships is what matters most, as is the case with any of the writer/director's films, and sex is often the litmus test for these relationships.
With my most recent viewing of Boogie Nights, I was struck more than ever before by the density of humor in the film. It's particularly evident in the first half, before things really take a turn for the dark, but it's present throughout. John C. Reilly helps this along with his consistently goof ball take on Reed Rothchild, and Anderson isn't apprehensive about giving Dirk Diggler his share of absurdity. In general P.T. is more than capable when it comes to subtle injections of humor, and Boogie Nights might be his funniest movie, perhaps second only to Punch-Drunk Love. Some might call it sloppy to allow such a fluidity of tone, but I prefer to think of it as just a bit deranged. It's not as though there's any question as to what the important pieces are, and you certainly don't have a hard time caring for the characters, but the freneticism keeps you on your toes, and can give the film a crazed edge that brings to mind a movie like Taxi Driver or Trainspotting.
A scene in particular that doesn't have any interest in letting viewers sit back and relax comes towards the end of the film, when Dirk and Co. decide, in a drug-fueled breach of judgment, to sell a notoriously flaky drug dealer a half-kilo of baking soda as coke. What follows is a scene that has been discussed endlessly by movie nerds everywhere, featuring a sweaty and manic Alfred Molina, a firecracker-tossing Asian named Cosmo, and a gunfight set to the tune of "99 Red Balloons". To be sure, the lead up to this scene helps the viewer recognize the characters' rock bottom when it comes, but the scene is a high wire act, and it's nearly impossible to avoid being lost in it. As Cosmo tosses his firecrackers, and Molina's Rahad Jackson vociferously professes his love for Rick Springfield over his blaring mix tapes, we find Dirk on the couch, pale and withdrawing, staring maniacally at nothing in particular. It's a confluent moment, where all the bizarre things that have happened in this film, and all of the joy and agitation and pure mania we've seen so far come together suddenly, and it leaves you speechless.
Boogie Nights is exhausting to watch, as are many of the director's films; P.T. Anderson isn't interested in simplicity or cleanliness. He's interested in finding good in bad characters, even if it might not be there at all. In this case it surely exists, in nearly all of his characters. Perhaps P.T. is growing cynical as he ages, but in his first major feature, he portrays characters sweet in their innocence and strong in their devotion to each other. In a film about successful pornographers and fallen drug addicts, the truest theme is family, and the message seems to be, “you can always come back home.”