Hard Eight (1996)

In writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut film, we meet a man named John (John C. Reilly) who is taken from the street into a diner by Sydney (Philip Baker Hall.) We learn that John is completely broke and can’t even pay for his mother’s funeral. Sydney offers to take him to Reno where he can show him how to turn his life around.

Once in Reno, Sydney becomes a father figure to John. He shows him how to get free rooms and meals from the casinos, while the young naive John pays Sydney back by putting him into some sticky situations when the film jumps ahead four years later. That’s where we meet the other two major characters played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson.

If I am a little too vague in my description, it’s because I need to be. This film takes many twists and turns that keeps the audience guessing at when the film will actually start being understandable again. It’s like a jumbo jet landing in a cross wind. It’s veering this way then that way, and finally it lands. The problem is that twists in the movie aren’t particularly interesting and we never care for characters enough to make us want them to be safe when the movie ends. The performances by the cast are mediocre, unfortunately. Philip Baker Hall is the only standout. Meanwhile, Paltrow seems especially raw and boring.

P.T. Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) starts his career as a writer/director with a bang, however. The camera acts almost as another character here. It follows Sydney through a casino, up and down a shady motel in classic Anderson fashion. Also, even though I didn’t like the story as a whole, there are some scenes that are brief highlights. Scenes like Philip Seymour Hoffman playing craps and talking trash to Sydney until he finally puts $2,000 on a “hard eight.” That shuts Hoffman’s character up and makes him respect the older and quiet Sydney.

I wanted to like Hard Eight because I am such a fan of P.T. Anderson and the ways his stories are a little off the beaten path. This story was certainly off the beaten path but in a boring and forgettable way. However, it’s easy to see why Anderson has become a hot director in Hollywood, and this film definitely has his hand prints all over it.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

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