The Good: Excellent dialog, Interesting characters and development, Great acting, Commentary tracks
The Bad: Pacing of the plot is uneven.
The Basics: Difficult to watch and often ponderous in plot pacing, Hard Eight takes four interesting characters and weaves them together.
Recently, I've been on a Kevin Smith kick because I enjoy his genius. Dogma (reviewed here!) is a perfect film and upon listening, as I frequently do, to the commentary tracks on DVDs, I learned that one of Kevin Smith's professional nemesis is director P.T. Anderson. My only experience with P.T. Anderson's work is Magnolia (reviewed here!) which is my third favorite film of all time and an easy perfect film. Considering all of my recent attention to Smith, I decided it was time to give Anderson another chance to wow me. This took the form of acquiring and watching Hard Eight, P.T. Anderson's debut feature film.
Hard Eight, or "Sydney" as Anderson calls it (petulantly, like a spoiled child in the commentary track) is essentially a play featuring four characters: Sydney, John, Clementine and Jimmy. Sydney is an old man who finds John sitting on the ground outside a diner. John is a bit of a simpleton who is attempting to afford a funeral for his mother. To that end, Sydney takes him to the casinos and teaches him how to make a living. Two years later, the mentor/student relationship has fallen away, replaced by something akin to a father and son relationship. Sydney speaks nicely to Clementine, a cocktail waitress in the casino and soon Clementine and John are relating with one another. Enter Jimmy, a smooth hustler who Sydney takes an instant dislike to and who orchestrates a change in the balance between the characters.
Hard Eight often has the feeling of not knowing what it wants to be and while the characters are interesting, the plot is so dreadfully slow at times that it is difficult to care about. Anderson has long stretches of dialog, which is wonderful, but the people talking just seems like people talking. By the time people start doing anything of interest, it's hard to care.
For example, Sydney walks us through the casino after ten minutes of meeting John and driving to the casino. Once there, Sydney walks John through a scam to get the gentle dimwit a free room for the night. Once John has the room, we ask ourselves "what's next?" And all that comes is more talking. And an hour of talking.
I love talking. I love clever dialog. But here, it seems forever between the introduction of Sydney and John and the first actual action. Indeed, the first action, a confrontation between Clementine, John, Sydney and an unconscious man in a hotel room, seems forced. In fact, it is. It's not until the last twenty or thirty minutes of the film that the movie has any real purpose. Only when John and Clementine are sent on the run and Sydney and Jimmy face off does the film begin to move.
By that time, it's too late.
I love characters and I like the characters in Hard Eight. But by the time Sydney does anything truly vital, we've already given up on the film going somewhere. In the commentary, P.T. Anderson gives a great analogy of Sydney to an older version of a hood from some old - I believe, Jimmy Durante - movie. It's a great idea. And the film works with that as its premise. The problem is, it does not become the film's premise until extraordinarily late in the game. There aren't clues to Sydney's past, only revelations.
The film suffers for this.
Conversely, rewatching the film becomes easier and easier. The last time I watched it (the fourth time, not counting the two times with commentaries on), I caught more humor in the film and enjoyed it on another level. Once we know Sydney's reasons, his purpose for befriending John and his dislike of Jimmy, we know that the film is going somewhere and that it's being portrayed by worthwhile characters. Until the film ends the first time, that's still in limbo.
My advice, watch it once when you can't give it your full attention, like when you're making a dinner with, say, a one hour preparation time. Then, give the rest of the film your attention. Once the film is over, suspend your judgment and wait two days. Then watch the whole film with your full attention. It'll work.
Hard Eight is a film worth returning to, but one must connect with the characters - who move this film entirely - in order to want to return to it. Until the near end of the film, we don't have the incentive to.
Upon repeated rewatchings, Anderson's genius begins to creep in. We see how eagerly and proficiently he creates the casino environment, infusing it with personality and a seedy decadence. Especially strong is the second commentary track, with Phillip Baker Hall. Unlike P.T. Anderson's whiny, melancholy first commentary track, the second one actually has interesting, productive anecdotes. It moves.
In the end, Hard Eight is a hard sell. It's difficult to recommend to anyone who watches movies causally. This is for people who enjoy reading and watching films. Bookworm/movie buffs are the ideal audience for this flick as they will have the patience and attention to give this film the repeated shots it needs to work in the psyche. Everyone else would do better to enjoy a nap instead.
For other works with John C. Reilly, be sure to read my reviews of:
For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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