Judge Clark Douglas has a terrible tell. Every time he gets an ace of diamonds, he starts quietly humming Bruce Springsteen songs.
A comedy about the fine art of losing.
It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sappho that thoughts acquire speed, The lips acquire Stains, The Stains become a warning, It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.
A. The Mentat Oath from the film Dune
Facts of the Case
The Grand is an ensemble piece that shows the amusing misadventures of several successful gamblers participating in a major Las Vegas poker tournament. One-Eyed Jack (Woody Harrelson, The Walker) is a drug addict attempting to win money in order to save his casino. Lainie and Larry Schwartzman (Cheryl Hines, Curb Your Enthusiasm and David Cross, Alvin and the Chipmunks) are two siblings who have been competing against each other their entire life. Andy Andrews (Richard Kind, Spin City) is an ordinary nice guy who accidentally got involved in the tournament when he somehow managed to win an online poker championship. Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell, Saturday Night Live) is an intelligent but spoiled introvert who likes to insult people. Deuce Fairbanks (Dennis Farina, Get Shorty) is a Las Vegas regular who likes to reminisce about the days when people could get beaten, shot, and killed for cheating in a poker game. These characters are destined to compete in a high-stakes poker tournament, which serves as the movie's primary gimmick.
Writer/director Zak Penn is something of a curiosity. As a writer, he would appear to be a successful member of the Hollywood system. His credits include the second and third X-Men movies, Inspector Gadget, Behind Enemy Lines, and The Incredible Hulk. Take a look at what Penn has done as a director, and his work is much different. His directorial debut was a terrific little movie called Incident at Loch Ness, a strangely presented mockumentary featuring acclaimed German director Werner Herzog attempting to make a documentary about the Loch Ness Monster. Incident at Loch Ness was a smart, sharp, funny movie that took some terrific swipes at Hollywood and even at Penn himself. Penn's new movie, a more obviously broad mockumentary called The Grand, also retains an admirably independent sense of humor and style, but it has a less impressive hit-and-miss ratio.
When filming the movie, Penn insisted that the poker games be real, so no one would know who would actually win. That's all well and good, and I think it's an interesting idea. However, it doesn't work in this particular movie, because whenever the film is focused on the playing of poker, the film becomes a dull ESPN event and forgets to be funny. Due to this, most of the film's final third has a lot of long laugh-free gaps, and because of this it's difficult for me to recommend the film to most viewers. If you're a poker nut, you may find it interesting, but those who came for the comedy will be checking their watches. Additionally, it becomes quite obvious at times that most of the movie was completely improvised. While there are plenty of inspired moments that pay off with big laughs, others scenes start to go somewhere promising and then just sort of fizzle out before the film moves right along to the next thing. Perhaps the biggest problem in terms of the characters is how much Penn likes them. There are plenty of opportunities for merciless satire that Penn passes up just because he doesn't want us to dislike any of the characters. That makes the movie very pleasant to spend time with, but nowhere near as funny as it could have been.
The DVD transfer is a good one, nicely capturing the garish colors of Las Vegas. The sound has its issues, though. Stephen Endelman's occasionally misguided score is turned up considerably too loud, sometimes even drowning out the dialogue. For that matter, sometimes the dialogue of one or two characters is considerably too quiet in comparison to the rest of the film. The DVD does supply a pretty generous batch of extras, though. A commentary with Penn, co-writer Matt Bierman, and actor Michael Karnow is very entertaining, as this easily distracted crew discusses everything from goat love to Christopher Guest to No Country for Old Men. Elsewhere, Penn teams up for scene-specific commentaries with Woody Harrelson, Ray Romano, and Cheryl Hines. Harrelson is particularly amusing, he seems as lost and foggy during the track as he does during the movie. Elsewhere, some alternate endings and deleted scenes are well worth checking out, as are some character profiles offering additional outtakes of the actors.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I must admit that "The Grand" very nearly built up enough good will in its first two-thirds to make me forgive the dull events of the final act. During this portion of the film, we're mostly focused on a wide array of oddball characters, not poker, and the results are frequently very funny. The primary characters are all fine, especially Chris Parnell as the brooding Melvin, but the real scene-stealers are some smaller supporting characters. Christopher Guest veteran Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap) is hilarious as a an oblivious billionaire. Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond) is actually quite good as Cheryl Hines' exasperated husband. Little bits from the likes of Hank Azaria (The Birdcage), Barry Corbin (No Country for Old Men), Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), and Gabe Kaplan (Welcome Back, Kotter) are fun, too. My personal favorite was Penn's Incident at Loch Ness collaborator, Werner Herzog. He plays a character simply called "The German," a hilariously creepy figure who is particularly passionate about killing living creatures. Herzog's loopy, frightening, funny monologues are nothing short of side-splitting.
Even if the movie's primary gimmick doesn't work, there are a lot of small pleasures along the way. As I said, I can't quite recommend it for most of you, but if you're a fan of Christopher Guest-style comedy and quirky ensemble films, you'll probably enjoy it. Considering the success of Penn's previous film, I had hoped for a little bit more than this, but even with it's major flaws, "The Grand" offers more laughs than a lot of what is passing for comedy in the cinema these days.
Guilty. The sentence is time served.
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