Hard Eight Reviews
Saw this on 2/6/16
An average film from an always overrated Paul Thomas Anderson that is well shot and features a good performance from Philip Baker Hall. However, the story is so thin and despite some tension buildup, the film is mostly lacking in suspense.
I often find myself comparing Paul Thomas Anderson's first two films with the work of Quentin Tarantino because I just think that they both had a similar approach to movie-making at the time, though that's certainly less the case today. Anyway, for me, Hard Eight is Anderson's Jackie Brown- it's more quiet and understated than Boogie Nights (or Pulp Fiction if we're still talking about Tarantino) but it has the same focus on giving multiple interesting characters a chance to breathe and develop on-screen. Indeed, that's really the point of Hard Eight (and why Anderson named it Sydney) - it's really about seeing Hall's character develop and this happens in the midst of a romance, a casino flick, a drama, and even a mob movie to some extent (though maybe that's just what happens to films when you put Casinos in them).
Anyway, there's plenty to love here and I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Paltrow and Reilly, who seemed to work together surprising well on screen.
It certainly lacks energy at times and not always in the same brooding way that much of Anderson's later, slower ,work does- Hard Eight just lacks a little self-belief at times and is clearly the work of a filmaker who, for whatever reasons, seemed to be somewhat limited in how they told their story. Boogie Nights certainly changed that though.
One of my least-favouritte of Anderson's films but he is my favourite living writer and director so that's not really saying much. A great film, but better was still to come.
The previously mentioned gambler is Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), an aging sinner who dresses like an uncorrupted oil tycoon and speaks with the slippery woes of a pastor. When we first meet him, he invites street-dwelling bum John (John C. Reilly) for a cup of coffee, eventually inviting him to travel down to Reno with him to learn the ins-and-outs of gambling and make a living. With no prospects, John takes the offer, unsuspecting that Sydney may have underlying intentions.
Two years later, John has become Sydney's right-hand man, calling a local casino home and calling hooker/waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) his main squeeze. Sydney now views the kid as a makeshift son, helping him stay out of trouble and always providing support when the going gets rough. For the most part, the three live a peaceful, if unfulfilling existence - but when John acts irrationally one night and takes one of Clementine's john's hostage after he doesn't pay her, the mini-empire Sydney has created for them may come crashing down.
As an introduction to the works of Anderson, "Hard Eight" provides a foundation but not a feast. We have the three-dimensional characters, dressed to the nines in eccentricities that could only work in the hands of Anderson, the compulsively listenable dialogue, the modernized music, the plot points that seem unexpected because everything is so real. But missing is the lived-in atmosphere that Anderson so frequently boasts, which does not count as a complaint because "Hard Eight" is 97 minutes while his most recent film, "Inherent Vice", was 149. It feels minor thanks to the operatic flawlessness of his other movies. And yet, even when Anderson is taking a day off (or in this case, introducing himself), his sensibilities are still a hell of a lot more effective than most of his peers.
But the best thing about "Hard Eight" is the casting of Philip Baker Hall, a character actor usually so confined to supporting parts in A-list movies that seeing him pave the way for once is an unequivocal treat. Few actors could play Sydney with such believability - with his puppy-dog eyes and weathered face, he has the look of a man who has made grave mistakes during his lifetime, only in his old age deciding that now is the time to make right. When it is revealed why he decided to help John in the first place is at once shocking and completely unsurprising - it's rage-inducing and heartbreaking. As John, Reilly is lovably apish; as his girl, Paltrow jerks our emotions - young and beautiful, we can see her potential but are also aware that the world is too cruel of a place to get her out of the purgatory she calls home.
If you're looking for Anderson's breakthrough, turn toward the wondrous "Boogie Nights", a deliciously satirical yet tragic account of the Golden Age of Porn. But "Hard Eight", small and to-the-point, is still competent and clever enough to make for above average entertainment. It's for the die-hard Anderson obsessors who ran out of epics to fixate upon.
Admittedly simple but intelligent story of an old gambling virtuoso teaching a much younger man tricks to get rich in casinos. His reasons of doing so are one of the movie's several twists. Directing debut of Paul Thomas Anderson is an impressive start for a great director. And like all his movies, it's the characters not the story that makes his movies special.