(Air Date: Week Of 2/26/97)
"Hard Eight" is a small, oddball film about the pitfalls of stupidity and the desire to make things right. It's long on character development but short on plot building 101.
The film opens with Sydney, a polished but tough man of respect and professional gambler taking John, a hoplessely inept human being, under his wing. It's an act of kindness whose motives will be made clear much later. Sydney shows John the ropes of small time Vegas cons. John, too stupid to be more than mildly suspicious, nonetheless learns quickly and, two years later, he and Sydney, are like father and son, working the casinos and living the good life. Into their lives tumbles darling Clementine, a cocktail waitress even dimmer than John. She hooks on the side, mostly because she can't figure out how not to. Like I said. Dim. When she and John, spend an afternoon together it's stupidity squared and that's a very scary proposition. Soon, Sydney is cleaning up after couple's foray into kidnapping, assault and matrimony, two of which seem to have happened accidentally. Meanwhile, John's slightly less dim friend, Jimmy, has discovered the secret of Sydney's generosity but is, alas, not quite bright enough to make it pay off the way he'd like.
Paul Thomas Anderson's script creates a low-key world full of the misfits and low-lifes that people the casinos. A world where brides in full regalia play the slots. His characters, quirky and interesting, are well served by the cast. The best job here, though, is Phillip Baker Hall as Sydney. His quiet, measured performance forces you to pay the closest of attention to everything he does and underscores the menace of his character when provoked. The script, though, stalls in places and doesn't set things up to deliver an effective payoff. It would have been a good idea, for one, to tell us ahead of time, that Sydney has a secret and, for another, to drop a few hints about what it might be. As it is, when this pivotal plot point is revealed, it falls flat.
"Hard Eight" offers up some great performances and moments, both funny and tense, but overall, in a very close call, I'd say it rolls snake eyes.
Copyright 1997 Andrea Chase
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