By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
Obviously, Philip Seymour Hoffman has been on a lot of minds lately, and I’ve found myself trying to fill in the holes I have in his film resume. For some reason, though, I thought he was the protagonist of Hard Eight (which for some reason Imdb thinks is titled Sydney, all posters to the contrary), his long-time director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film debut. Well, Hoffman’s in it, but the lead is another triple-monikered Philip, Philip Baker Hall.
Now, time to get back to Hoffman’s Riverworld novels…
Hard Eight is about a mysterious lifetime gambler who takes a young man (John C. Reilly) under his wing and teaches him everything he knows. When a desperate cocktail waitress (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a shady casino security man (Samuel L. Jackson) get mixed up in their lives, the stage is set for drama.
As you can expect from that cast list, the acting in this film is excellent. Philip Baker Hall has screen presence and gravitas to spare, a man whose unshowy confidence makes you trust that he knows what he’s doing, even if you don’t, but who has a certain hang-dog sadness behind his eyes. John C. Reilly plays his protégé with a clever naivety that he does so well, but this performance is much straighter than you’re probably used to, and he shows once again that he’s versatile enough to dominate both these roles and his overblown comic ones.
Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen him do before, but he can play sleazy and intimidating with the best of them, and yes, the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a brash, mulleted young gambler, runs away with his scene. But the standout for me was Gwyneth Paltrow, playing a role unlike any I’ve seen her in. While her character is underwritten, she overcomes that with aplomb, giving her whore with a heart of pyrite a believable sadness, making us believe her character’s quizzical decisions by exposing her bizarre lack of confidence and self-esteem. Forget the clueless quotes and the 90 buck t-shirts, as an actress she’s got as much talent as anyone.
I love Paul Thomas Anderson, but he should thank his lucky stars for this cast (and his longtime creative team of composer Jon Brion and cinematographer Robert Elswit), because in the hands of non-pros this might have been a career killer. His direction is fine, if lacking the pizzazz we’ve become accustomed to from him, with only one nice parking lot tracking shot that really caught my eye.
It’s the script (which he also wrote) which sinks things. It plays as second-rate David Mamet (and I’m rarely impressed even by first-rate Mamet) with a splash of fifth-rate Tarantino to water things down a bit- talky to the extreme, with that stage play veneer that never really translates realistically to the screen and dialogue that must have looked good on paper but feels very, well, written. It’s not all bad, but when it’s bad, you’ll know it.
“Her name is Clementine, see, and there’s this movie called My Darling Clementine, see…”
This film is slowww. Not in a good, character-building way, but in a “let’s have one more clever-ish conversation about nothing plot-driving” sort of way. It takes nearly 50 minutes for the plot to start any real forward momentum, and whether that’s a fault of that script or PTA’s shaky grip on pacing, both issues fall at his doorstep.
There’s one good twist in the film, but the “hey, we got married today” one ain’t it. It’s sudden, there’s zero setup and only the most tenuous of character-based reasons to do so. It’s just terrible.
Hard Eight is fascinating from the standpoint of seeing how far Paul Thomas Anderson has come as a writer/director, and it’s full of good performances. The script, on the other hand, unfortunately keeps it from being a good movie.
Take a Drink: for each new casino game tried
Take a Drink: whenever you hear “Vegas”
Take a Drink: whenever you see/hear about cigarettes or matches
Take a Drink: whenever someone in the film does
Do a Shot: when it’s hookin’ time
Do a Shot: when you Philip Baker Hall says “my darling Clementine.” Uggh.