The Grand Movie Review

The Grand Movie Review

Director: Zak Penn

Cast: Woody Harrelson, David Cross, Dennis Farina, Cheryl Hines, Richard Kind, Chris Parnell, Werner Herzog, Ray Romano, Gabe Kaplan, Michael McKean

Ladies and gentlemen, we finally have a good poker movie.  It’s been a while, but there is now a poker movie other than Rounders that isn’t full of clichés, one-outers, and poor acting.

The Grand, directed by Zak Penn, is an excellent comedy, deserving of more than a limited release.  The film centers around a group of poker players, all caricatures of the stereotypes they represent, who are competing in the $10 million, winner-take-all, Grand Championship of Poker.  The main character, Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson), is the owner of the Rabbit’s Foot Casino, which he inherited from his grandfather, and which is also the venue for the tournament.  Faro is a junkie screw-up who needs to win the tournament to pay off a debt to ruthless imbecile developer, Steve Lavisch (Michael McKean), who will take over the Rabbit’s Foot and demolish it if Faro can’t pay him back.

Along the way, we meet Lainie and Larry Schwartzman (Cheryl Hines and David Cross), a brother and sister combo who are loosely based off of Annie Duke and Phil Hellmuth, Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell), who has Asperger’s Syndrome, LBJ “Deuce” Fairbanks (Dennis Farina), who yearns from the old days where breaking kneecaps was the norm, The German (Werner Herzog), who is a scary, death-obsessed intimidator with a heart of gold, and Andy Andrews, the naïve, friendly, internet amateur. 

The most fascinating aspect of the film is that it is completely improvised, in the vein of movies like Best in Show and This is Spinal Tap.  Penn and Matt Bierman wrote what Penn calls a “scriptment” – part script, part actor notes, and part screenplay – which the actors had the freedom to interpret as they pleased.  The basic scenes were framed, but it was up to the cast to fill it all in.  The poker was improvised, as well, as it provided more realism to the film.

The “scriptment” concept works fabulously in The Grand, particularly because the cast is full of tremendous comedic actors, most of which are accustomed to improvisation.  The secondary characters complement the main players perfectly, making for a great ensemble cast.  Of particular note are Lainie’s husband, Fred Marsh (Ray Romano), who struggles with an inferiority complex as a stay-at-home dad, and the “Bust You Crew,” (Hank Azaria, Tom Hodges, and David Pressman), who are quite obviously in the film to mock “The Crew” of World Series of Poker fame.

Poker pro, Phil Gordon, does an admirable job as the commentator for the North American Indoor Poker League, and since this is an R-rated movie, he is able to get looser with his language than he is able to in real life.  Michael Karnow is hilarious as the clueless poker “expert” teamed with Gordon behind the microphone.

Poker players will love The Grand for the exaggerated characters and the inside humor that non-poker fans won’t necessarily catch.  That does not mean, however, that those who know nothing about poker won’t enjoy the film.  Just as Rounders was a good movie in its own right, poker not withstanding, so is The Grand.  Funny is funny, and while knowing a little something about poker will provide for a more enjoyable viewing experience, anyone with a sense of humor should come away from it with a big smile plastered on their face.

The camera work, graphics, sound, and music are all extremely well done, and greatly enhance the attitude of the film and its characters.

Any criticisms of the film are nit-picky and minor.  Jason Alexander was slightly miscast as an ethnically ambiguous Middle Easterner.  Both he and the character are quite funny, but Alexander is probably too well-known of an actor to play the role.  And while the movie succeeds greatly in providing almost non-stop laughs, it doesn’t quite reach its full potential of a rolling on the floor, tears streaming down the cheeks, can’t breathe riot.

Those minor points aside, The Grand is a must-see movie for any poker fan.  The concept of an improvised poker film is a refreshing deviation from the usual, formulaic, throw-away movies that are normally made about the game.  Add in Zak Penn as the director and an amazing cast, and you have yourself a fantastic, hilarious film that merits multiple viewings.