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Awesome: 33.33%
Worth A Look61.9%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 4.76%
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3 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Grand, The
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by Erik Childress

"Worth A Whole Lot More Than That"
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 CINEVEGAS FILM FESTIVAL: With poker becoming a media sensation on television if not a cash cow of the cinema, Zak Penn must be letting out a sigh that he was able to get to the mockumentary angle of it first. As films such as Shade and Lucky You sit around in cinematic limbo while distributors try to figure out how to sell a thinking man’s game to a public that can already get it with or without celebrities on nationally televised tournaments, Penn has assembled a top-notch cast of comic actors to embrace the phenomenon. More than just a very funny collection of oddballs, The Grand strategically balances the satire of this world with a surprising amount of warmth for each of their final chip counts.

Set around its own version of the World Series of Poker, The Grand introduces us to a number of its players, many of whom (unsurprisingly) will be battling it out at the final table for a cool ten million. Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson) is the comeback story, a former poker champ whose grandfather (Barry Corbin) is a casino legend. After inheriting his classic Vegas hotel, Jack spiraled out of control into booze, drugs and 70-plus wives and lost it to a real estate developer (Michael McKean) looking to demolish it and build a more modern casino consisting of two buildings and one room. There’s the brother-sister team of Lainie and Larry Schwartzman (Cheryl Hines & David Cross) who learned competition from their father (Gabe Kaplanyes, Gabe Kaplan) when one would frequently be rewarded and the other left behind on family trips to the zoo.

Andy Andrews (Richard Kind) is the online player who wins a spot in the tournament despite having apparently no other poker skill aside from Lady Luck. Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell, dead-on brilliant here) is the live-at-home anti-social nerd who has calculated all the odds of every hand and every deal when he’s not repeating the Mentat Mantra from the film Dune. New school meets old school when rival friends, Deuce Fairbanks (Dennis Farina, in prime Midnight Run/Get Shorty Farina fashion) and “The German” (Werner Herzog) bust into town. Deuce loves to rant about the old days where characters like Andy and Harold would have been taken out back and beaten for their antics at the tables while the fearsome German habitually needs to kill one living thing a day.

That’s a cast-and-a-half worthy of their own Ocean’s sequel right there. But I haven’t even mentioned Ray Romano (as Hines’ Mr. Mom husband whose only vice is fantasy football), Judy Greer (as Kind’s wife), Estelle Harris (aka Mrs. Costanza, as Parnell’s mother), Jason Alexander (as a temperamental Russian player), Hank Azaria (as part of a tournament busting crew based on the “Tiltboys” to whom Phil Gordon, who also appears as himself, once belonged) and the great Andrea Savage from TV’s all-too-short-lived, Dog Bites Man (as McKean’s thankless assistant and guide dog to Harrelson’s Faro.)

In grand mockumentary fashion, everyone has a story to tell about how they got here and, indeed, the first half has maybe the funniest material we’ve seen in the sub-genre since Christopher Guest’s Best In Show. Then, as the laughs begin to wear thin (as is usually the case when Brett Ratner tries to do comedy in a cameo), The Grand really surprises us in making us feel for the characters. Harrelson gets to hit some of the same sympathetic notes he played to perfection in Kingpin. Even the seemingly one-note villains played by Farina and Herzog are shown embracing their old rivalry. Though the most fleshed out rivalry turns out to be the one between Kaplan’s father and his kids. Striking a perfect balance between comedy and a finely molded human drama – Hines, Cross and particularly Kaplan in a long overdue acting appearance. (His last role was a Murder, She Wrote episode in 1984.) While the humor of his paternal competition is amplified in its setup, Kaplan plays it straight and it makes for scenes of really uncomfortable humor, sold by Cross’ mood swings from the bad boy of the poker circuit to the dejected little boy he’s always been. Hines’ defense of her brother is really quite touching as is her climactic scene with Romano, portrayed up to that point as a hapless lightning victim who can be a bit of an embarrassing interview.

What’s really fun about The Grand (if you know the backstory) is how the final poker table was played out for real. Taking a cue from Celebrity Poker Showdown, Zak Penn and Matt Bierman have outlined the script up to the players but not who the winner is. It adds an intriguing modicum of suspense to the film since nearly everyone being dealt has a rooting interest. While multiple endings were filmed (and destined for the DVD), Penn erases the preconceived notion of who is more deserving and who is most likely to win according to moviedom lore. It provides a wonderfully satisfying conclusion to storylines that have less “mock” in them than you may initially have thought. In the recent spate of the mockumentary institution, films from the usually reliable Brits (Confetti) and Guest (For Your Consideration) have come up short while Borat was overpraised and inappropriately labeled as anything but a pretty damn funny extension of the television skits. The Grand gets back to the basics and ranks not only amongst the better ensemble mock-ups but carves out its own niche in the world of poker films that has struggled to encapsulate the modern fascination with card watching.

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originally posted: 08/03/07 00:51:36
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2007 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/28/09 damalc not nearly as good as "Best in Show" 2 stars
12/11/08 Lee great scrip, simmilar to 40 year old virgin style comedy but without romance 5 stars
5/27/08 porfle Not as good as the Guest mockumentaries, but fun. 4 stars
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  DVD: 10-Jun-2008



[trailer] Trailer

Directed by
  Zak Penn

Written by
  Matt Bierman
  Zak Penn

  Woody Harrelson
  Ray Romano
  Cheryl Hines
  Jason Alexander
  David Cross
  Judy Greer

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