Posted on 8/03/13 04:06 PM
So famous is Boogie Nights, that I didn't even realise that Paul Thomas Anderson had directed anything before it. Considering Boogie Nights was his breakout, not Hard Eight, I watched it, expecting something of lower, but comparable quality. Were my expectations met? Eh. Hard Eight is better than a lot of films you see, as it takes into account often overlooked details: Setting up the tone/mood of the piece, the camera as an essential piece of the action, and most importantly, the Actor/Script balance that Anderson mastered in Boogie Nights. Despite these examples of the brilliance that was yet to come, I can't help but feel that Hard Eight, or Sydney, as it was originally titled, is lacking something. The performances are all great (especially John C. Reilly and Phillip Baker Hall), and the dialogue feels natural and well-paced, but nothing ever feels like it is going to happen, happened or is happening.
It follows the exploits of a 60-something man named Sydney (Hall, making the rare jump to leading role, and bringing all his talent with him), as he essentially saves the life of a half-bright loser named John. John is looking to make $6000, so he he can pay for his mother's burial. For reasons not explained, Sydney takes pity on John, and offers to show the skeptical young man how to make it big in Nevada's casinos.
Jump to two years in the future, and John is living it up: His mother has been put to rest, and he is free from the problems of everyday life. His friendship with Sydney remains, as John owes him his entire livelihood, but Sydney is only interested in living out his days peacefully. John has made a number of friends, one of which Sydney doesn't approve of: Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson, oozing an odd sort of polite menace). Despite his disapproval, Sydney stands by John, and even helps out a waitress (Gwyneth Paltrow, two years before her breakout role) whose hard life forces her to turn tricks for the local sleazebags. However, when Sydney gives her a room, echoing his kindness to John, her problems, and John's own, come to the forefront, and Sydney s forced to make a number of hard choices, so his way f life may be preserved.
Now, on first glance, nothing in this film seems to be too out of place: The performances are great. Phillip Baker Hall can tell a story through the power of his facial expressions alone. His character is one of unprecedented depth, and Hall plays every shade, every nuance to perfection, proving why he is among the greatest Character-Actors is history. John C. Reilly (in a role I believed was the lead) proves why he is a former Oscar-nominee, bringing a mixture of innocent charm (as he does in most roles), and streetwise knowing to the character of John. Again, his history as a character actor assure that he fits right in with Paul Thomas Anderson's MO of lovable misfits, people who can't get their life quite together. Sam Jackson proves why he is one of, if not the most talented supporting actor in history as Jimmy. A role that starts off with something resembling courteous disagreement with Sydney's honourable character, soon turns into something darker, more menacing. Gwyneth Paltrow plays, in a role she would never take today, a waitress who part times as a hooker, leading up to the event that the entire film is predicated on. Her performance is one of the best in the film (of the four leads, and one supporting role), as she captures what I guess is that Pretty Woman-esque sense of knowing and world-weariness. However, this being a P.T. Anderson film, nothing goes down quite as smoothly as one would hope, and the problems associated with being a hooker soon catch up with her and the audience. Paltrow plays the role with great dedication, and it proves why she's now one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood.
Even a supporting role, from Anderson regular Phillip eymour Hoffman goes down a treat, as he plays a loud, obnoxious young gambler, counterpointing Hall's timely Sydney.
The performances are, as usual, the star of the show, but we get glimpses at what would become Anderson's trademark (at least) on Boogie Nights. The camerawork is dazzling, thrusting the audience right into the scene, making us feel as though we are a part of every quiet, private moment, stripping away the glitz and glamour of the lives of these people, proving that they are just that: People. Anderson's affinity for long takes give the film a natural, human touch, keeping with his love of characters, and all their flaws.
Anderson's script, specifically the small dialogue, conversations, and such, is great. He has a way of writing (or perhaps it's the actors, but more than likely, a mixture of both), that feels incredibly natural, as though the camera is filming people going about there ordinary lives, regardless of the film's premise.
All these are great on their own, however, I just can't help but feel that the film never coalesces into anything better than average. Yes, the performances are great, yes the script is good, when broken up into individual scenes, yes the tone is consistently built to perfection, but nothing ever happens, and that makes watching this film awfully fatiguing.The entire piece is centered around two incidents, one of which happens before the film takes place, and the other is presented with such frivolity, that I could never comprehend if we were supposed to care about any particular scene. As such, any bursts of action (and there are very few) come across as out of place, and really hurt the much touted atmosphere-building going on for most of the film.
I know most of these criticisms feel intangible, and seem to be nitpicking, but the film genuinely feels like it meanders, and the noir-ish tone is seemingly for nought, when character motivations are so undeveloped, and characters are impossible to really root for or against as so little backstory is revealed in a satisfactory manner.
It's been said that Hall holds the film down, moving at the right pace so the film doesn't run away with itself. Some say that his timing keeps the film at a leisurely pace, and aids immensely in it's atmosphere-building. This is true, Hall's professionalism (both as character and actor) is of huge benefit to the piece, but I ask you: What is there to hold down? If it weren't for Hall, I don't believe the film would run away with itself, I believe it slow down, to near unwatchability. It's pace is so lackluster: Nothing you feel it builds towards ever actually happens. Whereas great films like The Truman Show, L.A. Confidential, and Anderson's own Boogie Nights, have a moment of climax, or a sense of plot-building, Hard Eight only meanders, with some extremely lackluster revelations along the way.
I really like Boogie Nights: It's a far superior film, and one of the finest films of the 90's. Hard Eight, however can't even come close to it's brilliance. Yes, the tone is chilling, and I could never keep my eyes off of Phillip Baker Hall. Despite this, I couldn't stand the insufferable lack of entertainment. In Boogie Nights, there are perfectly delivered scenes of comedy, drama, or mixtures of both. Her, there is no comedy (not necessarily a bad thing, but it could have benefited from it), and the drama is too clunky to really work.
Despite a distinguished cast (most of whom would be seen again as early as Boogie Nights), and a great script, Hard Eight can't overcome it's poor story, and is severely hampered by the complete lack of connection between film and audience.
Final Grade: B