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Taking a Gamble

Hard Eight
Mark Tillie

Never Ignore a Man's Courtesy: Sydney (Philip Baker Hall, right) offers John (John C. Reilly) a career opportunity in the lucrative field of gambling.

All bets are off in softhearted 'Hard Eight'

By Michael S. Gant

DIRECTOR/WRITER Paul Thomas Anderson's debut film, Hard Eight, started life as "Cigarettes and Coffee," an acclaimed short about five talky characters in a diner outside of Las Vegas. Hard Eight also begins at a nondescript Nevada coffee shop, where a Vegas-busted drifter named John accepts a cup of joe from a solicitous older man named Sydney--an act of kindness that alters several lives.

Unfortunately, Anderson's skill at storytelling hasn't caught up with his gift for dialogue and willingness to give his actors room to maneuver. Hard Eight features a marvelous central performance by Philip Baker Hall as Sydney, but the plot flounders in search of a point to make.

John (John C. Reilly) desperately needs the kind of direction that the experienced Sydney provides, even if it is just a simple lesson in how to manipulate the casinos at Reno. Two years after their first encounter, John and Sydney are a team of sorts, working the tables. When John gets himself entangled with a half-bright waitress, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), and a threatening hood, Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), he turns to Sydney for salvation. With a father's solicitude, Sydney helps his unofficial son and daughter find a way out of their self-inflicted mess.

Hard Eight hedges its bets for a long time before revealing Sydney's secret reasons for "adopting" John and Clementine, but the emotional surprise is not worth the wait, since Anderson doesn't fill in enough details to render Sydney's situation even minimally plausible. Deepening the hole at the center of the film's concept--families are where you find them--is the whining woefulness of John and Clementine, who hardly seem worth Sydney's concern no matter what might have happened in his past.

Anderson and Hall, however, have created a wonderful icon in Sydney, a natty throwback to another era of better-dressed, better-mannered hard guys. Sydney doesn't dislike Jimmy because he's trouble--that he understands. No, Sydney can't abide the way Jimmy uses profanity around Clementine. Hall, whose biggest film role to date was his one-man turn as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor, looks a bit like late-career George Raft, and he gives Sydney Raft's quiet dignity, even when he's begging for his life. He's the taciturn flip side to Burt Lancaster's courtly old-timer in Atlantic City.

Jimmy's fast-talking, hustling casino shark is a tangle of clichés ("You can't walk through this life without being punished," he says, imitating the cadence of Jackson's Bible-quoting hit man in Pulp Fiction), but Jackson rises to the occasion when he's onscreen with Hall. Their scenes together crackle with the energy of opposites.

Although there is one particularly impressive long tracking shot through a casino that captures perfectly the fish-bowl existence of gamblers, Anderson has more gestures than he knows how to choreograph into a coherent story.

Near the beginning, for instance, he sets up a running bit about how John won't use matches (although he apparently does just that in the very first scene) because a book of matches once spontaneously combusted in his pocket. It looks like a vignette that should return with a vengeance, but Anderson just drops it, like a bluff he decided wasn't worth risking his stash on. All of Hard Eight feels hedged in the same haphazard way.

Hard Eight (R; 101 min.), directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, photographed by Robert Elswit and starring Philip Baker Hall and Samuel L. Jackson.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of Metro

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