29 June 2008 | MacAindrais
High Stakes, (Some) High Reward
The Grand (2008)***
Zak Penn, writer of various superhero pictures, makes his return to the directors chair in this wildly uneven but nevertheless entertaining improvisational comedy. The film chronicles various poker players as they try to win big at The Grand Tournament in Las Vegas. Among the players are: Jack Fero (Woody Harrelson), a substance abusing womanizer looking to win the 10 million dollar pot to save his grandfather's passed down casino; Larry and Lanie Schwartzman (David Cross and Cheryl Hines), brother and sister competitors (also involved is their father and Lanie's husband, Fred, played by Ray Romano); Andy Andrews (Richard Kind), an amateur who has somehow made it all the way to the tournament, apparently on luck; Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell), a lonely Dune quoting genius who lives with his mother; Deuce Fairbanks (Dennis Farina), the oldtimer with many stories to tell about the old Las Vegas; and The German, a hardcore, animal sacrificing, quote poet played by who else but Werner Herzog. Various other actors, directors, and real life poker pros have cameos, some good, some just meh.
There really isn't a whole lot to say for the plot, other than its about a poker tournament. Characters have their various story lines: Jack trying to save his casino; Larry and Lanie trying to deal with their overbearing father; Fred trying to get Manning on Yahoo! Fantasy Football; Harold and Andy have a budding friendship; Deuce, the German, and Jack's grandfather used to pal around, etc. Its mostly filler for comedy and those times where poker tables go on break. There are moments when the backstories have some very funny comedy (such as the relationship between Lanie and Fred); also very funny is Michael McKeen as the man trying to swindle Jack out of his casino. Other times the comedy is just a bit flat, backstory or front story. There are moments where jokes don't flow well, and certain jokes seem to be coming from another movie entirely. But overall, the laughs are consistently there, not always big but grinworthy. Besides, McKean and Herzog, for the amount of screen time they have, are almost worth the price of admission alone. Brett Ratner, of all people, also has a couple good moments that I suspect might be either hit or miss with most audiences.
Penn is obviously going for a Spinal Tap or Guest-like rendering of poker tournaments. The dry wit is there, but so are the obvious go-for-laugh moments. Its not nearly as subtle as it could have been. The actors though mostly all deliver. Commendable in particular is the performance by Gabe Kaplan, pro poker player and Welcome Back Kotter alumnus, as Seth Schwartzman. He's annoying, as he was meant to be, but also pretty funny. Ray Romano is also very funny as the neurotic lighting strike survivor Fred.
So improvisational was the set that Penn stated that they even improved the final table. They of course gave extra cash to players they wanted to win, but apparently things didn't pan out. Whatever the case, The Grand is overall a hit or miss affair that hits more often than it misses. I enjoy the impromptu nature of improv comedy, and the actors are clever enough to hit the funny in short bursts.