A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
The man's face is sad and lined, and he lights cigarettes as if he's been living in casinos for centuries. He has a deep, precise voice: We get a quick impression that he knows what he thinks and says what be believes. His name is Sydney, and he has found an unshaven young bum dozing against the wall of a coffee shop and offered him a cup of coffee and a cigarette.
Why? The answer is the engine behind the first half of "Hard Eight." I am not sure it is ever fully answered, or needs to be. Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) is a man who has been gambling for a long time, and knows a lot about the subject, and shares his knowledge with the kid because--well, maybe just because he has it to share.
The kid is named John (John C. Reilly). He needs $6,000 to bury his mother and has lost everything. Step by step, Sydney teaches him some ropes, like how to start with $150 and recycle it through the casino cashier cages until he seems to have spent $2,000 in the casino, and is given a free room. This opening sequence is quietly fascinating: I like movies that show me precisely how to get away with something. At the end of the process, it's funny how John, now that he's in his own room, becomes the genial host. "Free movies on TV?" he asks Sydney. "Drink from the mini-bar?"
Two years pass. Sydney and John are still friends, John dressing like Sydney and even ordering the same drinks. We begin to understand more about the older man. He is a gentleman, with a deep courtesy. He watches the waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) flirt with a table of drunks, asks her if she "has" to do that to keep her job and says, "You don't have to do that with me."