At the beginning of "Hard Eight," a geezer named Sydney (PhilipBaker Hall) walks up to a loser named John (John C. Reilly) and offers to both buy him breakfast and teach him something. The reasons to be confused by this situation are numerous: Where does this old guy come from? Does he pick the first loser he sees or is he interested in this particular loser? Does director Paul Thomas Anderson have some deal with a restaurant supply company or is he just fascinated by the cinematic technique required to film a conversation in a booth?
While "Hard Eight" moves awkwardly toward revealing Sydney's little secret, courtesy of tough-guy Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), it bogs down in the marsh that is the quirky character drama. Other questions quickly arise: Why do two-bit hookers always have to put on their eyeliner with a felt-tip marker? Why does John C. Reilly sound like Kermit the Frog when he gets really aggravated?
Unlike real life, however, where questions and complications are rarely resolved in two hours, this film's secrets are readily revealed as though Vanna White were flipping the pages of the script. Yes, Sydney has a reason for picking John. Yes, he has a reason for helping when John gets involved with a hooker named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) and they become embroiled in a situation reminiscent of an "I Love Lucy" episode from an alternate universe.
It's a sure sign that the writer or director harbors some kind of brain dysfunction when a character is actually named Clementine. You hear the name and suddenly the movie becomes a slow-motion accident -- like locking your keys in the car or placing something fragile on the end of a counter and watching it get knocked over. When somebody finally addresses Paltrow as "My darling, Clementine," the resultant involuntary cringe is enough to make you spill your popcorn.
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