Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight aspires to be gritty and tough and tender all at once, but its tones keep getting in one another's way. In his feature-film debut, Anderson has conjured up the tale of a courtly old gambler, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), who inexplicably takes under his wing a raw youth named John (John C. Reilly). The soft-spoken, wise old fellow gives the kid a small stake, shows him the ropes on the casino floor in Vegas and--slowly, surely--grows into the role of surrogate father. In turn, the curly-headed boy shows his appreciation by learning his lessons well and imitating his mentor's style, right down to ordering the same drink. John couldn't have a better teacher, a better friend, and he knows it. By the time they both land on the tattered edges of Reno, two years later, John and Syd are each earning a living at the tables.
Why does Syd give so much of himself? Slow-witted John seems less interested in the answer than we are. Instead, the kid falls in with a dangerous hustler named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson steals another show) and a fatalistic hooker called Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow, suddenly as far adrift from Jane Austen as a girl can get).
The ever-gentlemanly Sydney continues to take a proprietary interest in John's future--Clementine's, too. He's a guardian angel with a pair of dice in his fist, a quiet redeemer amid pitfall and corruption. When his young charges get themselves in a real fix with one of Clementine's tricks, he does his best to get them out of it, and when something evil threatens his stewardship, he tries to fix that, too. Eventually, we learn just enough about him.
Despite a couple of similarities, there's no use drawing parallels between Hard Eight --the title refers to rolling double fours on the craps table, a profitable but long-odds play--and the corrosive, heartbreaking gem Leaving Las Vegas. The temptation will be strong for many, but the inexperienced Anderson isn't yet in the same league with a director as sure-handed as Mike Figgis, and this tale of devotion and danger--despite its several attractions--carries neither the weight nor the wallop of the memorable Nicolas Cage/Elizabeth Shue vehicle. Modesty of purpose is its own reward in Hard Eight, despite the film's vaguely confused impulses and a tendency to tip its hand dramatically.
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Character man Hall, who played Nixon in Robert Altman's stage production of Secret Honor and has helped shore up films like Midnight Run and The Rock, is a pleasure to watch here as a man of integrity harboring a secret. Even when Hard Eight takes a wrong step--and there are several--he quietly rights the ship. As for Jackson--red-hot in Hollywood ever since his brilliant biblical spout in Pulp Fiction--he quite simply fires the entire movie into a higher gear every time he hits the screen. And as for Paltrow's rather unconvincing hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, she seemed more comfortable among the tea and crumpets of Emma.
What do you say in the end? A nice little movie, that's what. It's always encouraging to see the indie movement roll on, to see young filmmakers get their shot, learn their craft, benefit from their errors. Mr. Anderson, we suspect, will do better than this.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. With Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson.