For reasons that will not become clear until much later, an aging gambler (Philip Baker Hall) takes a down-on-his-luck man (John C. Reilly) under his wing and begins to teach him the tricks of the profession in this dark drama set in the world of second-tier casinos and anonymous hotel rooms. They form an exclusive, almost paternal partnership, disrupted only by the arrival of a cocktail waitress (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a bullying con man (Samuel Jackson, in a role that may have stumbled upon the very definition of evil). Though on the surface, this is a classic film-noir set-up, Paul Thomas Anderson's script and deliberately paced direction take a detour into much deeper emotional territory—and the superior performances of all involved, especially Hall, respond in turn. Snuck into a limited theatrical release, this is the sort of film that will hopefully gain on video the audience it never really found in its widescreen form. As one of the best films of the year, it certainly deserves it.
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