A Big Bright Shining Star
Everybody wants to find a home. Everybody wants to find a place where they belong, even if it's ultimately not the healthiest place for us to be.
Though Paul Thomas Anderson's talents as a filmmaker don't really need to be sold to the moviegoing public at this point, his strengths particularly lie in stories about chance and circumstance allowing outsiders to find some concept of "home." Some of his best movies, including The Master and Phantom Thread, feature characters who just stumble into unlikely, life changing relationships, thanks solely to good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) timing. They feel a sense of belonging for perhaps the first time in their lives, not realizing or ignoring that the peace it brings them is momentary, and eventually they'll either have to flee, or do whatever is necessary to cling to it.
Boogie Nights is almost entirely about finding community under odd circumstances. Still Anderson’s best movie—or, at least, the most rewatchable—it’s a masterwork in subtlety, and remarkably free of sleaze and luridness, which is surprising considering that much of the plot hinges on the protagonist having an enormous penis. Taking place over a period of about six years, party scenes mark the two turning points in the movie. A pool party ushers in an exciting new life for our protagonist, while a New Year’s Eve party brings the good times to a bleak and violent end.
But before we can get to all that, first there’s the Anderson signature fateful meeting. While at a nightclub, porn director Jack Horner “discovers” Eddie Adams, a nice but not too bright high school dropout trying to earn money by busing tables and letting people look at his comically large dick. After “auditioning” Eddie on film, Jack invites him to his San Fernando Valley home for a casual get-together with several dozen of his closest friends, some of whom will eventually play very important roles in Eddie’s life, though of course he doesn’t realize that yet. There’s some skillful bits of foreshadowing here for several of the characters that don’t really make their full impact until a second viewing, when the upbeat mood at the party (granted, largely powered by massive amounts of cocaine) feels a little bittersweet.
One of the reasons Boogie Nights succeeds is that it passes no judgment on its characters for working in the porn industry. Other than Eddie, we know almost nothing about the circumstances that led them to it. It’s safe to assume that they were seeking what Eddie finds so appealing about Jack’s world: immediate acceptance for who he is, as opposed to his mother, who seems to hate him merely for existing. Everyone Eddie is introduced to at the party welcomes him with warmth and enthusiasm. He bonds instantly with unlikely porn actor Reed, who, bafflingly, says to Eddie “people tell me I look like Han Solo.” Jack’s girlfriend, Amber, will eventually develop a strange sort of mother-son relationship with this big dumb kid who gets paid to fuck her on camera, but in the meantime stares at him in bleary-eyed, coked out fascination. Eddie is wanted and admired, perhaps for the first time in ever.
And speaking of “wanted,” here comes crewmember Scotty J., who first appears to the tune of “You Sexy Thing,” in what might be the greatest musical cue of all time. Pink and helpless as a newborn kitten, Scotty is dumbstruck with love the minute he sees Eddie, reduced to a stammering wreck in his presence. Also dumbstruck by Eddie is the Colonel, who bankrolls Jack’s movies. Clearly not knowing what awaits him, he tells Eddie “Jack says you’ve got a great big cock,” and asks to see it. Eddie obliges, and the Colonel thanks him, gawking as if he’s just seen a giant dollar sign. Which, in a way, he has.
Though Jack is coy about whether or not Eddie is going to be brought into the fold permanently, it’s clear from the minute he enters Jack’s house that he belongs there. Eddie greets everyone and everything he sees with the charming “gee whiz” boyishness of someone hanging around with his favorite baseball team during pre-game warmups. He just can’t believe his luck. A wayward, empty future now suddenly looks brighter by the minute, and all he has to do is show off what the good lord gave him.
Of course, there are some shadows creeping in along the edges, all of which will impact this strange little family eventually. A child telephones the house asking for “Maggie,” Amber’s real name, but she’s too strung out to realize that it’s her son, recently lost in an ugly custody battle, trying to call her. Little Bill, Jack’s sad sack assistant director, looks on glumly as his wife fucks other men out in the open, a situation that will become untenable by the end of the decade, just a few years away. And of course, the mountains and mountains of cocaine nearly all the characters indulge in at some point will lead to more destruction than porn ever will.
But for now, before things get ugly and ruinous, our characters know little else but hedonistic pleasure, lit by endless California sunshine and set to an AM Gold soundtrack. A dazzling tracking shot of an anonymous female guest diving into the pool and swimming underwater, where even the music is distorted for effect, allows the viewer to feel as though they’re really there for a moment, and maybe a little disappointed that they’re not. Sure, pornography may not be as noble a profession as, say, selling insurance, but who’s having more fun? Who’s making more money, where the only responsibilities are showing up for a film shoot on time and not making a stupid face when you come? It doesn’t seem so bad, as long as you don’t think about it too much.
Luckily, thinking isn’t Eddie’s strong suit, so he’ll be okay, for a little while. After showing the Colonel what’s about to make him a star, Eddie runs back to the pool, as eager as a Boy Scout at summer camp. In that moment, life is an endless party, and he’s diving right in.