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3 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Grand, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Hands of Fate"
4 stars

Like so many of the so-called “mockumentaries” that have popped up in the last few years, “The Grand” owes a great deal of its approach–a largely improvised examination of a peculiar sub-culture as seen through the eyes of a few of its kookier participants–to the great works of Christopher Guest (“Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind”). Unlike so many of those imitators, it understands that one of the key reasons that Guest’s films work so well (besides the keen improvisational skills of his ever-reliable company of stock players) is that while the worlds he is examining may seem goofy to us outsiders, he treats them relatively seriously and with a certain amount of realism instead of exaggerating things in order to score easy laughs. As a result of this solid foundation, the jokes are not only funnier but there is a certain poignance and dramatic interest that emerges as well–we actually care if the New York theatrical agent will arrive or who will win the dog show or whether an emotionally damaged folk singer will pull himself together in time for a comeback concert. “The Grand” has a lot of funny moments but what really surprised me is that it dealt with its central subject–a high-stakes poker tournament in Las Vegas–in a similar manner and as a result, when the film finally gets to the final showdown featuring all our main characters, we are laughing but we actually have some kind of emotional investment in the outcome.

The film follows around a number poker players as they prepare to take part in The Grand, a yearly tournament that is held in the once-proud Rabbit’s Foot Casino with a winner-take-all prize of $10 million. One participant is Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson), a bad boy who inherited the Rabbit’s Foot from his grandfather (Barry Corbin) and whose indulgences with booze, drugs and women (including 74 marriages) have left him in dire straits and facing the loss of the casino to ruthless land developer Steve Lavisch (Michael McKean) unless he can come up with six million bucks. Then there is Deuce Fairbanks (Dennis Farina), a old-timer who remember the good old days of Vegas before the town was taken over by bean counters and developers like Lavisch. (“The downfall of Las Vegas was the day they let people wearing culottes into the casinos!”) Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell) is a socially maladjusted man-child who is obsessed with numbers, odds and percentages and who believes himself to be a human version of the Mentats from the science-fiction classic “Dune”–at several points, we hear him reciting the Mentat code, though an onlooker does mistake what he is saying for Rush lyrics. Twins Lanie and Larry Schwartzman (Cheryl Hines and David Cross), who were raised by their father (Gabe Kaplan) to believe that competition is everything, have gone down different paths–Lanie brings home the bacon playing poker while her husband (Ray Romano) raises the kids and tries to invent new catchphrases and sayings while Larry has made a name for himself as the bad boy of poker (though I suspect that any player behaving as obnoxiously as he does would be drummed out of nearly any game he entered). Amiable Andy Andrews (Richard Kind) is a math teacher from Wisconsin who arrives in town with his seemingly cheerful wife (Judy Greer) and a bizarre story–after accidentally stumbling onto an online poker website, he managed to luck his way through enough victories to land himself a seat in the competition. Then there is a man known only as The German (Werner Herzog), a strange guy who thrives on competition and who maintains a daily regimen that would horrify the good folk at PETA. There are also rumors that an online poker sensation known only as “Pocket Aces” maybe be amongst them as well.

“The Grand” was made by Zak Penn, whose previous film, “Incident at Loch Ness,” was another faux-documentary that purported to follow Werner Herzog around as he prepared to shoot another one of his jaw-dropping film projects–an attempt to find and film the Loch Ness Monster. That film was pretty impressive, mostly because it was never certain until the very end as to whether it was a put-on or not–the premise may sound ridiculous until you began to consider the seemingly impossible cinematic endeavors that Herzog had actually managed to pull off throughout his career. This time around, the basic story is obviously fictional but the poker–the element that the entire film revolves around–is dealt with in a fairly serious and straightforward manner that results in both an intriguing contrast between those sequences and the more over comedic material and a certain amount of dramatic tension that is allowed to develop as a result. This isn’t one of those poker movies like “The Cincinnati Kid” or the recent version of “Casino Royale” where everyone is coming up with once-in-a-lifetime hands at the drop of a hat–here, the play is far more low-key and the results seem to be based more on luck, fate and chance than on a screenwriters whim. In fact, after watching the film, I discovered that while the film was scripted so that the six main characters would wind up facing off in the final showdown, that last game was actually unscripted and the actors were essentially playing for real in order to determine the winner.

“The Grand” isn’t perfect–some of the jokes (especially the stuff involving Ray Romano’s character) fall flat, the doofus poker announcer is clearly meant to remind us of the Fred Willard character from “Best in Show” but it comes off here as a little too forced and it seems like a crime to bring in a comedienne as inspired as Judy Greer (whose off-beat charm has saved many a lesser movie from total disposability, the latest being “27 Dresses”) and then give her virtually nothing to do. However, when it is funny, it is really, really funny–I love it when Harrelson shows us some of the proposed casino designs that he put together during his days under the influence, the commercial for a gambling system that includes flash cards to help people learn the various cards and the moment when David Cross complains about how “if people played correctly, I would win every single hand.” Most of all, I loved every single moment involving Werner Herzog as the mad German. Even though nothing involving him should come as a surprise any more, it is surprising to see him so effectively channeling his persona as the wild man of contemporary cinema into a performance that is all the funnier because of his straight-faced approach. Just the sight of seeing Herzog sitting in a chair while stroking a bunny rabbit while pontificating about how “Vegas is a place without irony” would be enough to make “The Grand” worth watching all by itself. It may not be the cinematic equivalent of a royal flush but it is pretty close to a full house–since most screen comedies these days can barely muster a simple pair of face cards, that hand is more than satisfactory in this particular game.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16196&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/04/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2007 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/27/09 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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