I think no one who has ever been involved with filmmaking of any kind would dispute that brass balls of a certain density are a pre-requisite for coordinating an improvised movie. But balls only take you so far. Zak Penn made the format work on a small scale in Incident At Loch Ness. With The Grand, he expands both cast and scope. Returns, however, are diminishing.
The story of the world’s biggest winner-takes-all poker tournament, The Grand follows six players competing for a ten million dollar pot, and the focus is on personalities, not cards. Where Loch Ness appropriated the shot from the hip documentary format as frequently practiced by Werner Herzog, who also starred in the film, this time Penn has edged into territory long claimed by Christopher Guest.
Appropriately, then, his cast is a collection of (mostly) lovable losers. There’s the woman (Cheryl Hinds) whose husband (Ray Romano) was struck by lightning and now spouts idiotic slogans while managing a fantasy football team from home. Her brother (David Cross) endorses an unknown poker website and has lingering daddy issues. As their father, Gabe Kaplan makes a welcome return to the screen; Welcome Back, Kotter, indeed. A hyper-intelligent but socially stunted geek (Chris Parnell) calculates odds endlessly while an unknown internet phenom (Richard Kind) threatens to upend the tournament.
Toplining the cast of low-key cretins is Woody Harrelson as ‘One-Eyed’ Jack Faro, grandson of an original Vegas entrepreneur. He’s playing to win money to buy back the family casino, which he sold off in a drug-induced haze. But first he’s got to face off against Deuce (Dennis Farina) and The German (Herzog), two of his grandfather’s old-school cronies.
A full rundown of each actor’s successes and failures within the film would run longer than Penn’s X3 script. Suffice to say that Harrelson turns in an easily digestible rapscallion; Cross, Romano, Hinds and Kaplan create a dysfunctional family that is more off-putting than funny; Parnell surprisingly gets away with his manchild persona; and Farina and Herzog kill with their delivery. Herzog, in particular, is the salvation of the film. Yet he’s ousted from the tournament early on, depriving the film’s latter half of his significant personality.
The Grand fails largely because Penn doesn’t follow through. It’s one thing to have Jason Alexander or Hank Azaria show up in a role that’s meant to be only a flash of color, but another to let characters and situations just die on the vine.
The most obvious example is Judy Greer, who is funny, if familiar, as Richard Kind’s homey, kooky wife. Greer is given a proper introduction, but then fades literally into the background, where we occasionally see her cheering in the audience.
Would that feel less like a fumble if Christopher Guest’s signature wasn’t all over the blueprint for The Grand? Penn happily name-checked Best In Show during promotion for this film and even casts Michael McKean as a doddering, self-absorbed hotelier. But Guest wouldn’t leave a loose end like Greer’s character lying around. And this flick goes for the quick gag rather than the deep situation, as when we learn the nature of McKean’s relationship to his pretty assistant. Guest would use the situation as a base to dig into character; here the reveal is just an easy punchline.
Similarly, more could be developed from Michael Karnow and real-life player and celebrity poker host Phil Gordon as the tourney’s commentators. Gordon has enough experience doing this for real that he could probably make the delivery work from a coma, and Karnow desperately flogs a series of jokes about his character’s failed set of infomercials and poker books. But they’ve got no chemistry and Penn doesn’t lend them any; he literally seems to have plopped them in front of a backdrop and let the camera run for a couple hours.
The predominant impression there, as in much of the movie, is that all involved hoped some magical synergy would take place, fusing Penn’s ideas and the actors’ inspirations into one cohesive tale. But it never happens, and the effect is of real amateur rather than faux verite. Viewing The Grand is like watching a pot that, true to idiom, never boils.