After the relative success of Incident at Loch Ness (2004), writer/director Zak Penn switches from mockumentary to improv comedy, inspired by the work of director Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman) where actors are given a basic outline of a film's concept and characters, and improvise whatever's required to fill out a film – story, characters, and dialogue.
Penn did have a clear concept: follow six very disparate gamblers as they make their way towards the final round and the crowning of the winner. Fans of improv-driven performances will probably enjoy the eclectic mix of actors – comedians, TV, theatrical, and non-pros – but poker fans may find The Grand a glossy, hyped production that has less to do with the game, and more with character nuances that make them eccentric, lovable, or really, really annoying.
Poker greats do appear in small cameos, but the leading character threads deal with a grandson (Woody Harrelson) hoping a big win will return control of a family-run casino back into his tarnished hands; a blue collar stay-at-home dad (Ray Romano) jealous of his wife's (Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines) gambling success; her brother's (Arrested Development's David Cross) jealousy, and their detached father (Gabe Kaplan) who only cares about the more successful daughter; a total poker novice (Richard Kind) whose innocence and strange luck bring him to the final round; a social misfit (Chris Parnell) with borderline Asperger Syndrome ; and a veteran gambler (Dennis Farina) filled with nostalgia for the more violent period of Las Vegas' early years.
There's also The German (Werner Herzog, and a two-man coterie that includes Tiny Lister) who likes to kill an animal whenever his energy level and excitement for the game starts to ebb; and a few secondary characters, like an evil land developer (Waiting for Guffman's Michael McKean) who holds the grandson's casino lease, and his personal assistant who remains stone-faced when she has to help sell the concept of a giant hotel that's just one room.
The challenge for non-poker fans is whether Penn's depiction of the game is engaging, and whether the characters can transcend what's essentially footage of people sitting at tables in tournaments we know are filler before the finale, which Penn filmed as a straight game, with no one knowing who would win the final round.
To break up the linear storylines, Penn intercuts a few pre-tournament scenes with selections of the six prepare leaving their home turf for Vegas; and post-game interviews with a fake documentary crew – both streams which he also applied in Loch Ness.
Overlaid are graphics mimicking the tournament scenes in TV's Celebrity Poker Showdown (many of the lead actors have appeared on the show), and segments with pompous commentators; both elements give the film some verisimilitude, but the latter adversely affects the film when the commentators devolve into an Abbott and Costello routine of straight man paired with self-aggrandizing buffoon Mike Werbe (Michael Karnow).
Unlike Loch Ness, which relied on Werner Herzog's innately fascinating persona dropped into another extreme and delusional quest, The Grand has far more characters, and they're all more or less annoying. Cheryl Hines plays the most grounded, and it's her character's relationship with her jealous father and brother that provides the most realistic family bickering.
(A deleted scene involving her wimpy husband and brother at a blackjack table, included in the DVD's extensive Deleted Scenes gallery, really should've been retained in the film because it deepens the internecine squabbles of the wonky family, and it shows the husband as a decent guy beneath his pathetic attempts to gain attention by coining exceptionally bizarre catch-phrases like “Don't pee in the wetsuit.”)
Chris Parnell's portrait of a “socially inept” poker savant has some funny moments early in the film, mostly when he delivers abstract statements capped with rude statements; and Werner Herzog enlivens the film when he blathers about killing bugs, talking of pygmies, and cradling his very fat white bunny (which escapes at one point).
Brett Ratner, who directed the dreadfully shallow X-Men: The Last Stand (which Penn co-scripted) also provides some rude, politically incorrect moments as a gambler who uses cancer to gain sympathy from his opponents; Jason Alexander has a short scene as a blurry Jewish/Arab gambler with a very bad cranial sunburn; and Hank Azaria has a few short, negligible scenes as part of a three-man gambling clique.
Like Loch Ness, The Grand is polished, looks gorgeous, and is very well cut to keep the pace moving and exploit some subtle performance nuances (particularly in the disastrous family dinner scene with Hines, Cross, Romano, and Kaplan). Also important is Stephen Endelman's score, and the locations which give the feel of a documentary crew following each of the lucky six as they live in hotels until the dream of winning big is finally claimed by one person.
Unlike Loch Ness, though, the film's narrative streams are more varied because Penn intercuts doc footage, TV footage, and hand-held dramatic footage, and although it works, it's still jarring when so much effort went into crafting a fake reality-styled environment, and it's broken up by intimate dramatic scenes, which include half-naked Harrelson and McKean's assistant on a drug bender, and Harrelson seeing the ghost of his grandfather (ever-irascible Barry Corbin) in the men's room – things no doc crew would be allowed to film, or would pick up on film and retain in the final edit as blasé fact.
For fans of Penn's film, Anchor Bay's DVD provides a huge assortment of extras, which include a deleted scenes gallery (most with commentary by Penn, Harrelson, Hines, and Romano); a feature film commentary track with Penn, co-writer Matt Bierman, and actor Karnow; three streams of scene-specific commentaries; and promo-styled spots on the gamblers as well as the film's cameos (which includes much deleted footage, including a scene with The German where Herzog talks to the cameraman about his preference for an electric razor – a sly punctuation to an indulgent quibble his character made in Loch Ness about using disposable razors.)
Of all the extras, the one to skip is the full-length commentary track because it's basically three guys being goofballs, and their dry, teen-bound jokes just aren't that amusing. The additional selected scene commentaries have Penn with groups of the actors talking more straightforwardly about how the project was organized among the actors, their parameters in crafting characters, and favourite scenes with the type of serious filmmaking info mostly absent in the feature-length track.
The deleted scenes are marginally interesting, but the aforementioned blackjack scene between Romano and Cross is the most notable, as well as an alternate ending filmed because one of the cast couldn't stay past the final tournament sequence. There's optional commentary on most deleted scens, but no one says anything intriguing, and Penn's inclusion of having Harrelson comment on 2 scenes he wasn't involved with is just dopey.
Penn's been blessed again by attracting a really solid cast, but The Grand is probably of interest to poker fans who enjoy improv-driven plots in realistic surroundings. One can only wonder how the film would've progressed had The German (a character very freely expanded by Herzog) been part of the final six. Had he won, he probably would've pulled a yucca root from under the table smacked everyone hard in some gratuitous victory tanz.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan