We meet John (the incredibly versatile John C. Reilly, who can’t avoid being funny but is in drama mode for this one) as he sits outside a diner, flat broke and despondent. Sydney (veteran character actor Philip Baker Hall) invites him to enjoy a cigarette and a cup of coffee with him. John has a bit of an attitude and is skeptical of Sydney’s charity but also reveals himself to be a very sweet, naïve young man. Sydney picks up on this quality as well and he takes this young man under his wing. Together they drive back to Vegas (where John had lost everything trying to get 6,000 dollars for his mother’s funeral) to teach him how to make a living as a small time gambler. Many of you will recognize Philip Baker Hall from his deadpan, brilliant turn as “Mr. Bookman” the library cop from Seinfeld. His face and delivery are very memorable and it’s a rare treat to see him in a lead role here as a master gambler with a very strict (but somewhat precarious and contradictory) code of ethics. The first lesson (on how to manipulate your rate card into high roller status with a free room) is more clever and fun to watch over 5-10 minutes than anything you’ll find in duds like last year’s blackjack film “21”. This movie has more of that “old Vegas” quality; musty hotel rooms, cheap suits and drinks on the rocks. More in line with films like William H. Macy’s “The Cooler” (another future blog entry I’m sure) than the Vegas you see in “The Hangover”. In “Hard Eight”, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, it haunts you and draws weathered lines on your face.
So, we fast forward some 3 years later to see that John has developed his skills through Sydney’s tutelage and has acquired a shady new friend Jimmy (another early to mid-90’s firecracker performance from Samuel L. Jackson back when he still had something to prove). We also meet the eternally sad looking Gwyneth Paltrow’s cocktail waitress/prostitute character Clementine. I don’t know if Vegas movies inspired the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold mythos or if the legalization in that area just tends to draw a lot of them but this is definitely an area of the movie that feels formulaic and cheap to me. Yes, these are the type of “chicken or the egg” questions that obsessive film viewers like me must ponder. Fortunately, Anderson proved in every subsequent film he’s made that he has an excellent knack for writing strong female roles (with the exception of There Will Be Blood of course which did not have any significant female roles at all). This time though, it is indeed a woman who is both their undoing and in some ways their savior.
Hard Eight is told in a series of long conversation scenes and in this “3 years later” sequence we discover that Sydney has great respect and consideration for the well being of the ladies bringing him his drinks (certainly Clementine in particular), we learn that Clementine thinks John is cute, we learn that John and Sydney have really developed that father/son type bond (there are lots of great, subtle moments along those lines after this scene as well including the fact that they drive the exact same car) and we learn that Sydney does not like Jimmy. These interpersonal dynamics will shape the rest of the film after Sydney takes it upon himself to play match-maker to these two lost souls (even as he discovers just how damaged Paltrow’s Clementine really is).
There is an electrifying little moment when Sydney comes into John’s hotel room to find things playing out exactly as he hoped. He observes Clementine and John sitting in bed, like two kids at a sleep over, bright eyed and bushy tailed young lovers. I had a sense of the palpable chemistry between these two; you could literally feel the energy and connection between the characters. While I’d like to attribute this to the two actors, it also reminded me of moments in another Anderson film, Punch Drunk Love, which is probably the most effective and powerful filmic representation of falling in love I’ve ever seen and I’ve become convinced that Anderson has some magic insight into how to stage these scenes and have that effect. I really can’t put my finger on it and maybe it’s just my deeply rooted hopeless romantic tendencies recognizing a kindred spirit but there really is something unique about Anderson’s ability to capture the great intangible CHEMISTRY between people.
I don’t want to spoil the rest, but unfortunately, this beatific dynamic is very quickly shattered by an incident that will profoundly affect all 4 main characters and reveal a few new insights into Sydney’s back story. Which brings me to my two closing points. One is that the joy of this film is sensing the history of these characters without ever having it spelled out for you. That’s not an easy thing to pull off without a lot of heavy handed exposition inserted into conversation. Even with the things we ultimately come to learn about Sydney, I felt like I knew and liked the man within the first 5 minutes of meeting him at that diner and I liked having the opportunity, throughout the film, to invent his history in my own mind. That’s what makes a great character actor great. Hall’s face is his greatest tool but also the way he carries himself and his unique vocal cadence. The quality that made his appearance in that Seinfeld episode so hilarious is what works so well for him in dramatic parts, his sincerity.
The other notable element at work here is the brief cameo from Philip Seymour Hoffman as “Young Craps Player”. His mullet alone is worth the price of admission! Seriously though, it’s a short, snarky and memorable appearance from one of our greatest living actors and the start of a great partnership between Hoffman and writer/director Anderson that gave us Scotty J in his next film “Boogie Nights”, the caring hospice nurse Phil Parma in “Magnolia” and another memorable and hilarious cameo in the aforementioned “Punch Drunk Love” (again, the only film Hoffman is not in is “There Will Be Blood”).
So, you can see “Hard Eight” to see the budding artistry of Paul Thomas Anderson in the first of his 5 exceptional contributions to modern film. You can see it to appreciate how heartbreaking and tender John C. Reilly could be before the wretched Apatow mafia recruited him for their mischief (I’m kidding a little bit of course, he’s still great and I thought “Walk Hard” was very fun and liked his work in the otherwise lackluster “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights” as well). You can see it to watch Philip Baker Hall have a rare moment in the spotlight. You can enjoy watching the intense, fire-in-the-belly Samuel L. Jackson in a role more reminiscent of his frightening and dangerous performance in “Jungle Fever” (arguably his best work EVER) than the winking, ironic shadow of his former self we tend to see in his recent efforts (“Snakes on a Plane” or “1408”…or “Jumper”…or any of the movies where he’s just going through the motions). You can watch Gwyneth Paltrow be reliably pretty and sad and you can witness the mighty Phillip Seymour Hoffman throwing dice with gusto.
This is not my favorite Anderson film, it’s not my favorite performance from any of the actors. It’s not a masterpiece and it’s not going to change your life. Saying that this is not my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson movie, though, is like saying that New York Super Fudge Chunk is not my favorite pint of Ben & Jerry’s (meaning it’s still delicious and will do in a pinch). Same thing with the cast, they all do great work here and it’s an excellent ensemble! I also have to wonder how the film may have turned out if he had already been established as a brilliant and trusted auteur. The creative control issues Anderson had with this film have been well documented (he turned in a 2 ½ hour cut, they told him to cut it, he refused, they fired him and cut it without him and changed the name from “Sydney” to “Hard Eight”, it was accepted to Cannes on the condition that Anderson be given final cut, Anderson turned in a 100 minute cut but has largely disowned the film as not being true to what he wanted). You don’t need all that baggage though. Just watch and enjoy a low-key slice of life from some of our greatest cinematic treasures! Grade: B