June 9, 2008

The Grand


Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): **½

Mockumentaries must be fun to make, especially with an ensemble cast of capable comedians. You can practically set the actors loose and just film willy-nilly. But the trouble with most mockumentaries is that filmmakers tend to rely too heavily on plots, arcs, climaxes and resolutions. Consider the granddaddy of them all, This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which is just a series of events, one after the next, without much connecting them. It's the story of a rock tour, and it doesn't lead up to the big final show, or any other big final event. It's about everything that happens along the way, and the ending is almost insignificant.

The Grand, about a Las Vegas poker championship, starts promisingly by introducing us to its impressive and diverse cast, including Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm), David Cross (Mr Show), Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, Chris Parnell and filmmaker Werner Herzog as the main card players; and Michael McKean (lending some Spinal Tap cred), Shannon Elizabeth, Mike Epps, Judy Greer, Hank Azaria, Gabe Kaplan, Ray Romano and many others appearing on the sidelines. Each character gets an instant personality, and each is ridiculous and endearing. Jack Faro (Harrelson) is trying to run his grandfather's casino, but keeps screwing it up due to drug and alcohol problems; he's been married some 70+ times and has even been thrown out of his own casino. The German (Herzog) likes to kill something -- often a small animal, but not always -- each and every day to make himself feel more alive. (He compares it to drinking coffee.) The mockumentary style works well, both ridiculing and copying the television spectacle that poker has become.

But when the big card game begins, and -- inevitably -- our seven big stars make it to the final round, the comedy stops and the competition begins. It becomes yet another Rocky-type standoff with strategy meeting adrenaline and victory as the ultimate goal. That's fine, if you're going to make that kind of movie, but writer/director Zak Penn (who also had Herzog in his previous mockumentary, Incident at Loch Ness) wastes a lot of comedy potential here. During his day job, Penn is the very successful screenwriter of mainly superhero movies, including one good one (X2: X-Men United) and several bad ones (Inspector Gadget, Behind Enemy Lines, Suspect Zero, Elektra, X-Men: The Last Stand). Obviously his routine kicked in halfway through filming The Grand and he decided that sticking to the formula was more important than letting something organic or crazy happen. Moreover, rather than informing an intelligent audience all about the rules and intricacies of "Texas Hold 'Em" (as did Curtis Hanson's unfairly reviled Lucky You), Penn merely holds our hands and guides us through each play, through the use of TV announcers, as if we were too dim to understand.

However, the film's first 20 minutes -- when the story is still wide open -- contain some wonderful, hilarious moments, which is perhaps enough to squeeze into a movie trailer. Maybe it's better to just watch that instead.

Anchor Bay released the DVD after a brief theatrical run. It's fairly well-packed, with commentaries, alternate endings, deleted scenes, player profiles and other goodies.

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Posted by cphillips at June 9, 2008 2:23 PM
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