The Grand (Zak Penn, 2007)
It is damned tough to make a good movie about poker. Many have tried since the poker boom hit. None have succeeded; the only truly great poker movie, Rounders, was made five years before that. But that doesn’t stop folks from trying, and let’s be honest—while a poker player is going to be able to comment on the ridiculousness of the final hands in movies like The Cincinnati Kid, Maverick, or (the worst case of poker egregiousness in history, to date) Casino Royale, maybe the general public won’t notice. Or, at least, that’s what I’m figuring the writers of these movies say to themselves when trying to pitch themselves on writing scenes that require one’s suspension of disbelief to stretch farther than the Overseas Highway. The Grand‘s isn’t quite that bad, but the errors that plague the movie’s poker are of the even-more-egregious variety, and Penn and co-writer Matt Bierman decided to try to pair the poker movie (already an ill-fated venture) with the improv comedy movie. That as much of it succeeds as it does is a minor miracle.
Plot: One Eyed Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson) is the wastrel son of a casino owner who finds himself in desperate need of cash to save the family legacy, which a robber baron (Michael McKean) wants to buy and turn into a million-dollar-per-night hotel/entertainment extravaganza. Thus, he does what any enterprising young man in need of cash would do—enter a major poker tournament that will win him enough money to pay off the casino’s debts, as long as he can outlast such poker-playing lights as Deuce Fairbanks (Dennis Farina), Lainie Schwartzman (The Ugly Truth‘s Cheryl Hines), Fred Marsh (Ray Romano), Yakov Achmed (Jason Alexander), Reggie Marshall (Mike Epps), and the mysterious player known only as The German (Werner Herzog in a rare trip in front of the camera), along with a few other guys you may have heard of like Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Laak, Phil Hellmuth…
When the movie stays on point, it’s quick, it’s funny, and as long as the writers aren’t attempting poker analysis, it’s reasonably intelligent. The poker profiles, a la the WSOP filler material on ESPN, range from the amusing (Ray Romano’s skit) to the downright hilarious (every time the Schwartzmans are onscreen). Michael McKean, as usual, is gold every time he gets in front of a camera.
And then there are the downsides, which start with every time the movie attempts to show poker being played. I’m amazed Phil Gordon, who plays the poker commentator announcing the tournament for TV, didn’t smack people upside the head with the script for all the stupidity they send spewing out of his mouth. The improv comedy bits… well, some of them work (see previous bit about the Scwartzmans), but most fall flat; the only other character who really works 100% of the time is The German, and that’s because Herzog plays him straight, with an air of menace that does not fit at all with this movie, and yet it works. Which should be an indicator right there that something is failing, but somehow it didn’t raise any alarm bells.
Short answer: if you’re in the mood for a poker movie and you’ve watched everything else on the subject you own, give this a go. The parts that work make it worth your time, and hey, it’s a helluva lot better than Lucky You. ** ½
Trailer? But of course!