Hard Eight (1996)

We had been turned away from Boogie Nights and didn’t bother to go to There Will Be Blood—which they played in two theaters and filled almost all of both, I’m told—but I figured this early Paul Thomas Anderson would not be so jam-packed.

I thought wrong. We sat in the front row, though at least somewhat toward the middle. This colored The Boy’s opinion of the movie because, as he put it, “There’s a lot of acting in this movie and all I could see was that guy’s nose.” That guy in question being none other than John C. Reilly, who is a loser rescued by Philip Baker Hall when the latter sees him hunched down outside a Nevada café.

See, he did Boogie Nights next.

“He doesn’t want to call it ‘hard eight’. He says it sounds like a porn—saaaay.”

Hall is a tremendously kind, though hard-edged, gambler who takes Reilly under his wing, and who seems to have endless tolerance for the young man’s foibles. Not just the Reilly, but also put-upon, flirtatious-or-possibly-soliciting waitress Gwynneth Paltrow, upon whom Reilly is sweet, and also upon whom Hall visits more of his apparent altruism. In fact, about the only guy he doesn’t seem to care much for is Reilly’s new pal, Samuel L. Jackson, who is crude and highly vocal with his crudeness.

Trouble begins when, through a very simple set of rather overt actions, he hooks up Reilly and Paltrow. This looks like the ultimate good deed except for the two people in question being dumpster files. And just when you think Hall has found his limit, he bails the two out of a very serious situation—one that could land them all in jail. Predictably, Jackson ends up being the monkey-in-the-wrench, and we get to see exactly who Hall is and why he does what he does.

That he likes wide shots in diners.

This shot…again. What’s PTA trying to tell us?

It’s a pretty darn good movie. It is, as The Boy notes, chock full of ACTING! Although the acting is fairly subtle and low-key, which is a good thing considering PTA’s love of close shots. It amuses one (me) to see all these people “looking so young”, except Hall has never really looked young. (Recently, he’s taken to looking really old, but the guy will be 86 this year, if he makes it, so we can cut him some slack.) The lovably homely Reilly seems to aged the least among all of them, including Samuel L. Jackson.

And speaking of Mr. Jackson, he actually acts in this one. The expectations for him to be a foul-mouthed bad-ass weren’t quite set in stone yet, and he shows some real range here, which is nice.

I gather that PTA had a lot of trouble with his producers on this. He wanted the title to be “Sydney” (Hall’s character), and he wanted to go straight to movie from title, rather than do the whole title sequence up front—the norm now, but edgy back in 1996. What’s more, they cut 30-40 minutes out of his film. The Flower, The Boy and I all liked it—she and I more than he—but we didn’t think 40 more minutes would’ve raised our opinions much.

This was why we skipped There Will Be Blood, after all. One-hundred fifty-eight minutes of Daniel Day Lewis limping is a lot, no matter how convincingly Mr. Lewis limps. Next week’s movie is Magnolia, which has a staggering 188 minute runtime but at least consists of more than one person doing more than just limping.

Jackson has no idea.

No sit down diner shot with Jackson. No, sir.

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