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Starring Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly;
Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Hard 8 is slang for throwing two "fours" in the game of craps. The way it's laid out in the film of the same name, it's akin to the brass ring on an old time carousel. Always present, but always just out of reach. If you bet it, you've just got to believe you can hit. In Hard 8, the movie by first time writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, we have a story of two people too stupid to know that they are stupid. They have too much faith in their own self worth to allow that kind of thinking. That's the story you'll find star flavor of the week Gwyneth Paltrow in, but it isn't central.

Here's the deal. You've got an old gambler named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall). Starched white shirt and black suit, tie tightly knotted. You've got a kid named John (John C. Reilly) who tried to win enough money in the casinos of Reno to bury his mother, and crapped out. Old man picks up young man but, interestingly enough, not for sex. Old man teaches young man how to gamble; how to work the system to get free food and board. Why? We don't know.

Two years later we add a cocktail waitress (and part time hooker) named Clementine (Paltrow) to the mix. Old gambler takes a platonic interest in her as he did in the young gambler two years earlier. We also meet a fast talking, leather and gold chain wearing "new friend" of the youngster. Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) respects Sydney, but it is obvious that there is now a competition for the kidlet's loyalty and friendship. Eventually, there will come a face off.

Hard 8 is a solid story which, given the minuscule size of the cast and number of locations, could have been staged on the theater boards. Anderson has, as I've written before about other first timers, spread himself too thin. There is some brilliant dialog both bad and good, but his directing skills are limited to one and two shots, just like most would be auteurs out of film school. There is extensive use of a Steadicam but, as if to make a point, Anderson jumps to a hand held camera at emotionally crucial moments. That's an old college trick, as I know, and it makes me nuts. It's distracting and, given the quality of the performances, a useless trick.

But it is in these kinds of stillborn efforts that we can see some glimmer of hope. The story is not so thin that the actors have nothing to work with. All four actors pump their characterizations as far as they can go; Jackson the farthest.  

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Hard 8, he would have paid...


Rent it for the names.

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