Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) is a seasoned, respected gambler and occasional con artist. He knows all the tricks, but is getting a little long in the tooth in an increasingly modern world. John (John C. Reilly) is a fool who lost all his money in Vegas trying to win enough to pay for his mother’s funeral. Sydney takes John under his wing to show him where he went wrong.This is going to be the first of six posts this week on the films of Paul Thomas Anderson (hopefully, if I can keep up; I’ve watched them all and discussed them on an upcoming Lambcast, I just need to get my thoughts on screen). If you’d asked me a week or so ago whether I called myself a PTA fan, I’d have answered with a resounding yes. However, now I’ve seen all of his films instead of just four, I’m a little more mixed, as you’ll see over the course of this week. But let’s kick off PTA Week with something a little more positive, shall we? I’d never seen Hard Eight before, but was always planning on getting to it one day, purely on the basis of it being a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
Narrative-wise Hard Eight is one of PTA’s most linear, straightforward plots, although it’s quite episodic in nature, and doesn’t have much of a through-line in terms of an easily identifiable end goal. Like many of Anderson’s films, this is more of a character study, looking at the characters going through the circumstances rather than the circumstances themselves. Unfortunately I’ve never been a huge fan of character studies – there’s the odd exception of course, in the same way as there’s a few musicals I like, or horror movies – but I’ve always been more of a fan of a story than anything else.
That being said, I still quite liked this movie, because the characters we follow are interesting, the acting is stellar through and through, and the situations they get into are all interesting. Philip Baker Hall is an actor I first saw in Magnolia (more on that tomorrow) and have been on the lookout for ever since. I’m always delighted when he crops up in things, like Bruce Almighty, 50/50, Zodiac and of course Seinfeld, so seeing him in a starring, lead role is fantastic. His Sydney is often a man of few words and even fewer movements, always civil and respectable, just basically a nice guy. The moment when he busts out a cuss at a dire situation only goes to exemplify just how serious things have gotten. John, on the other hand, didn’t do it for me as much. He’s depicted as a stupid character, but the depiction is taken too far, spending far too much time showing him to be a doofus, when I think Reilly’s performance could have ably gotten the message across, without quite so many hints in the script. Some of them were funny – his whining that he was trying to grow a beard when Sydney makes him shave – but more often than not I found his character to be more infuriating and annoying than anything else.
Gwyneth Paltrow, rarely an actress I’m gravitated towards outside of Se7en or the Iron Man movies, here plays Clementine, a waitress and call girl who becomes close with John, and here is actually rather good, surprisingly so, in fact. As indeed is Samuel L. Jackson as Jimmy, a somewhat less dignified influence on John than Sydney is. Jackson steals a lot of scenes purely on the basis of being louder and swearing more, but entertainingly so. Similarly, the one scene Philip Seymour Hoffman crops up in is glorious purely for showing the beginning of what would be a long and successful relationship between actor and director. Hoffman plays a nameless, obnoxious player at a craps table at which Sydney is playing. Sydney stands there impassively, the only man wearing a suit amongst far more casually dressed patrons, being goaded unsuccessfully by Hoffman’s utter prick. Hoffman says as much in that one scene as Hall does in almost the rest of the film, this constant spillage of swears, insults and cockiness, which is deflated so perfectly by the outcome of the scene, and in such a way that shows the vast juxtaposition between the two men. Sydney suffers a far greater loss at the craps table than Hoffman’s character, yet their reactions are flipped with regard to the severity. Sydney remains composed, as always.
Some of the events take wholly unexpected directions – there’s even a kind of hostage situation at one point – and there’s a final act twist that initially felt out of place, but in retrospect really tied the whole thing together, adding a sense of conclusion that otherwise would have left the film petering out. All in all, this is a solid film that didn’t blow me away, but is worth tracking down, even if you’re not an Anderson completist.
Choose Film 7/10