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Hard Eight
1996 - R - 102 Mins.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written By: Robert Jones and John S. Lyons
Starring: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Review by: John Ulmer
   

Hello? Seymour Butts, please.
Before he walks into the diner, the old man stoops down against the exterior of the building and asks the younger man if he'd like a drink and meal inside. Together they enter, sit down at a booth and talk, and the old man offers the younger man to drive him back to Atlantic City and retrieve his losses so that he can bury his mother for six grand. The younger man is confused. What's in it for the other guy? Nothing. The old man is apparently just a genuinely nice guy.

The old man is Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), and his newfound friend is John (John C. Reilly), and together they travel back to Atlantic City.

Sydney is a veteran gambler; he knows how everything works and what to do to make everything work for him. In one of the film's better scenes, Sydney teaches John how to make $2,000 dollars with one hundred and fifty bucks. It doesn't even involve much gambling.

What starts out as a sort of strange con man movie soon evolves into a tender character piece when the film skips forward two years. Both men are happy rich gamblers, with John looking up to his mentor and falling for an Atlantic City waitress, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). Clementine dabbles in other fields when she's not playing waitress -- particularly selling herself to drunken gamblers looking for action. Sydney and John decide to take Clementine under their wings, and soon the trio spawns a deep admiration for each other that are firmly rooted in their hearts.

After a somewhat wandering beginning (that is nevertheless fascinating), Paul Thomas Anderson's film debut picks up speed and introduces one of those sinful chain reactions that I love ever so much in cinema. The same sort of downward-spiraling events that occur in "Fargo," "A Simple Plan," and "Bound," when characters are faced with their destinies and try to avoid them by outsmarting their own fate. You can't outsmart fate. It's been proven before. In "Hard Eight," a.k.a. "Sydney," the characters learn this rule once again.

But it's also a film that asks the age-old question, "Does the end justify the means?" Towards the last stretch of the movie, we find out some things about Sydney that we haven't really expected, and how he deals with these things begs us to reconsider just how far we would go to protect our loved ones.

This was Anderson's first feature film, and it's clearly evident that he had a firm grasp on filmmaking even at such an early stage in his career. The man would go on to make some of the most successful, bizarre and off-beat films of the past two decades: "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "Punch-Drunk Love," which offered a breakthrough role for Adam Sandler. (Who hasn't taken the opportunity to improve upon himself since.) "Hard Eight" may not be Anderson's best, but it's one of his most effective.

And if the film has any flaws at all, they certainly don't lie in the cast, which is top-notch. Hall, as Sydney, is superb -- caring, calm and grandfatherly, he displays a sort of repressed sadness in his face that leads us to believe there may be something beneath the surface. But it isn't until later into the film that we realize that look is indeed there for a purpose.

Reilly, who appeared in many Oscar-nominated films of 2002, is just as likable as John -- a sort of dim-witted, good-natured klutz who is a bit apprehensive when he first meets Sydney. Watch his eyes tear Hall apart. He's looking for motive but can't find any.

And in what is arguably one of Paltrow's most daring roles, she tackles an occasionally annoying character and turns her into a likable, sweet innocent. Together, John and Clementine make a sort of Clarence and Alabama pairing -- they're innocent and likable enough, but prone to dabble in activities that should be restricted to people with entirely different personality traits.

It's difficult to classify "Hard Eight" in any distinct genre. It's a drama, it's a gambling movie, it's a thriller, it's a romance, and yes, it's even a violent crime story. After the film ends, it leaves a sort of uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. You don't know what's just happened, but whatever it was, it's left something behind that may just have changed you a little bit.

So, does it even have a point? Yes, it does. But unlike most films released nowadays, "Hard Eight" challenges the viewer to probe deeper into the material. Different people will come away with different opinions about "Hard Eight" and its morals, but I think it's supposed to be that way.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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