A psychologically troubled novelty supplier is nudged towards a romance with an English woman, all the while being extorted by a phone-sex line run by a crooked mattress salesman, and purchasing stunning amounts of pudding.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Philip Seymour Hoffman
John has lost all his money. He sits outside a diner in the desert when Sydney happens along, buys him coffee, then takes him to Reno and shows him how to get a free room without losing much money. Under Sydney's fatherly tutelage, John becomes a successful small-time professional gambler, and all is well, until he falls for Clementine, a cocktail waitress and sometimes hooker. Written by
Jon Reeves <email@example.com>
This is also known as "Sydney" (director Paul Thomas Anderson's original title) after the name of the movie's central character, a somewhat mysterious casino gambler (and murderer, by the way) played by veteran Philip Baker Hall. The new and more commercially-viable title comes from the game of craps in which the dice player can roll an eight with a six and a two or with a five and a three or with two fours. Since probabilistically the hardest way to roll an eight is with two fours, that's called a "hard eight." Such a choice occurs twice in the movie, and symbolically a "hard eight" may represent the gambler's psychology.
Co-starring as Sydney's protégé is John C. Reilly as John Finnegan, a kind of lovable schmuck who falls in love with a Reno waitress/prostitute named Clementine, played quirkily by Gwyneth Paltrow. Samuel L. Jackson has a modest but very convincing part as a casino security sleaze.
Anderson's direction of these very talented actors was excellent. I wish I could say the same for his script. Most viewers I suspect will find this a bit dull; and, as it unfolds and we find out why Sydney is playing guardian angel to John, viewers may even be disappointed. I know I was. I had expected something original as Sydney's motivation, but what we learn in the last reel is quite ordinary (as movie motivations go).
What kept me watching was of course trying to figure out what makes Sydney tick and why and how he can spend his time so aimlessly gambling (and almost always losing), and where his money comes from. I also was intrigued by the originality of Anderson's treatment as opposed to his story per se. The stylized, slightly "off" dialogue, especially well-suited to Reilly's studied interpretation and Philip Baker Hall's inscrutability, reminded me of something that might have been written by David Mamet or even Quentin Taratino. Finally I was interested in seeing how Paltrow would play a role seemingly quite removed from her screen persona. I thought the delicate and very winning star of Shakespeare in Love (1998), etc., worked hard to create the sort of lower-class, uneducated, "victim" of the Las Vegas/ Reno casino culture that Anderson had in mind, and I thought she did it well. However, hers was not a sympathetic role and it did not test Paltrow's range as a actress, although playing a prostitute is something many actresses find interesting. I am thinking of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990) and Elizabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) or even Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour (1967).
Bottom line here is that this is a studied, "arty" movie well worth seeing because of the performances and as an example of Anderson's unique style, but not something for a mass audience or for those viewers looking for a diverting thriller.
But see this for Philip Baker Hall, one of those rare actors to actually find his best roles and do his best work in his sixties. Indeed, his performance here revitalized a career that had long languished. In this regard I am reminded of the Swedish actor Victor Sjostrom who gave perhaps his greatest performance in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) when he was 80 years old. Although I have seen little of Hall's work, I am willing to bet that this was one of his greatest performances.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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