Boogie Nights (1997) by Paul Thomas Anderson is a fantastic film that explores one of society’s most conventionally seedy industries. How’s the script? Let’s analyze it.
- Draft Read: September, 1995
- Type: Shooting
- Page Count: 166
- Reading Speed: Medium
- Setting(s): Los Angeles, California
- Plot Structure: Linear, Spanning multiple years
- Genre(s): Period, Comedy
- Theme(s): Adult film industry, Drug addiction, Family, Professional success, Reputation, Love
- Protagonist Change: Moderate
When I took a screenwriting class in college (circa 2017), the professor absolutely loved this movie. In fact, we probably spent a third of the semester breaking down various scenes from the script. Oddly, it was a Catholic school, but nobody seemed to mind.
It’s no surprise that the professor loved this film. It’s pretty awesome. It takes an industry (porn) that no one wants to admit their interested in, and humanizes it. Does it make it look glamorous? Not really, but the characters are relatable, to an extent. And relatable characters can make a great screenplay (ex. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Sound of Metal (2019).
It’s an awesome script. Let’s not minimize that. The characters, while all flawed, have great inter-dynamics. I particularly like the intro between Dirk and Reed (Page 35):
You look like it. Whadda you squat?
No b.s. Where do you work out?
Torrance. In Torrance, where I live.
Cool. Cool. You ever go to Vince’s out here — no you couldn’t, I would’ve seen you.
I’ve always wanted to work out a Vince’s.
Here we go… taste that.
What do we learn here? Both are dullards (I didn’t include the whole scene, but it’s obvious). We also see the chemistry between the two. Lastly, Reed’s last line foreshadows Dirk entering the porn industry. It’s great screenwriting.
Boogie Nights is somewhat episodic. Sometimes the subplots don’t quite tie together, although the themes do. For example, when Dirk is beaten up and Jack and Rollergirl are humiliated by a college student, the scenes are connected by the limo driving by an alley that Dirk is laying in. So while the degradation (theme) of all characters is present in this sequence, the actual stories don’t connect. Is this bad? No, not at all. But it doesn’t have that fun epic story climax moments where all the stories intersect.
Another example would be that Dirk learns (or perhaps doesn’t, but we see) that Johnny Doe is the one who accidentally killed his parents in a car crash. I guess the lesson there is that their impulsive lifestyles do have consequences. Likewise, the issue is that only half-bringing all of the stories together at the last moment feels somewhat unrealistic and forced. It’s fitting sure, but it’s cliché. Dare I even mention The Colonel and Tyrone in prison (Pages 160-161)?
Is Boogie Nights a masterpiece like Cool Hand Luke (1967) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)? My initial reaction is no, it’s not quite there, although it’s hard to pin down why. It has relatable characters, relevant themes, and important life messages. But a few scenes don’t quite work, in my opinion. Here’s one:
On Pages 25-28, Dirk fights with his mom and decides to leave home. It’s and important plot point, as he needs to commit to his new lifestyle (and perhaps shares a small amount into the backstory of why Dirk gets into adult films), but it feels forced. After all, Dirk works two jobs, is somewhat independent, and doesn’t seem overly problematic (for a 19-year-old). But the plot has to keep moving, so the scene is needed. And if a scene is mostly a plot mover, one may as well add in lots of conflict, which is the case here. Perhaps this scene was too short, too long, or the flow into it wasn’t quite that. Regardless, it felt off.
I argue that Boogie Nights is more or less a tragedy. Few of the characters end in a better situation than when they started. What keeps the narrative drive going isn’t the porn industry, but the cocaine addictions and overall bad decision making. The plot, as noted above, is somewhat episodic. A lot happens, and sometimes the tone of each subplot mimics the others; but because things get progressively worse and the financial stakes get small (and life becomes just about getting one’s next hit), it becomes a relatively depressing story.
Characters are another area where this script excels. Dirk Diggler is a fun lead, Reed a good sidekick and Jack is a entertaining kingpin. Even the supporting cast seem relatively well thought out. For example, Amber deals with being denied visitation rights for her child. That’s not to say every character is perfect, some, such as Little Bill, feel a bit one-dimensional. Of course, his exit goes agains the run of play and is sure to catch you off-guard.
Dialogue & Pacing
There is some great cringe comedy here. Here’s a quote from Page 33:
You’ll have that care someday.
Yeah. You’ve got a great cock, Eddie.
One of the unique aspects of this script is that the characters often speak out (or act out) their thoughts. This works because the characters are presented as relatively dumb, so it comes across as realistic that they need to state their thought processes. There’s probably a better term, but it’s soliloquy-lite. Oftentimes this is done in front of a mirror or through clever dialogue. Here’s an example (Page 76):
I know what you mean, sometime I’m like, “What am I doing?” “What the hell is wrong with me?” Y’know?
The pacing was unique in that it was linear over multiple years. It would often jump forward, with title cards displaying the year and short sequences with quick cuts (I believe montages) providing us a brief snippet into the inter-time periods.
Other times, pivotal scenes come seemingly out of the blue. For example, we go from Dirk playing video games to The Colonel’s arrest, bound to happen at some point after his earlier gross behavior, over the course of a few lines (Page 99).
Tricky, tricky, tricky. Does this script carry an emotional impact? After all, many of the characters are emotionally stunted, so one can kinda of empathize with the poor decisions they make. And judging by the film’s popularity, I would say a lot of people do connect with the movie, especially the relationships between the characters (ex. Dirk and his mom; and yes I do realize I knocked that scene earlier).
I’d say it’s a moderately moving movie. There are certainly some impactful scenes, but I wouldn’t say we as the reader (or viewer) even truly root for or feel strongly for a character. It’s a fun film about people who probably shouldn’t have money and power having both, after all. It’s probably worth noting that while the movie has it’s fans (perhaps even a cult following), it does not have the staying power or pop culture endurance that some other comedy films seem to have ex. Animal House (1978), Friday (1995) or even Superbad (2007). That should serve as a hint to it’s overall impact.
Best Part of The Script
- The short sequences are worth the read to analyze a unique screenwriting format. See Sequence B on Pages 70-74.
- The robbery turned shootout (The one at Rahad’s house).
- The robbery in the donut shop (Page 142).