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Monday, May 26, 2008

THE GRAND -- DVD review by porfle

THE GRAND is a mockumentary that would like to scale the same comedic heights as THIS IS SPINAL TAP, BEST IN SHOW, A MIGHTY WIND, and other similar efforts, but doesn't quite pull it off with the same degree of hilarity. Still, with a fine cast of comics improvising the majority of their lines, the hit-and-miss ratio is pretty good.

Woody Harrelson plays Jack Faro, a perpetually-stoned ne'er-do-well ("If you can smoke it, or drink it, or inject it, or snort it, I've done it") who has inherited a large Las Vegas casino called The Rabbit's Foot from his late grandpa "Lucky" (Barry Corbin) but is on the verge of losing it due to gross mismanagement unless he can enter his own casino's big poker tournament and win the ten-million-dollar jackpot. He has stiff competition, though, from a variety of top players who also have their eyes on that huge stack of cash.

Director and co-writer Zak Penn (INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS) gave his cast a script with only the basic story points and then allowed them to come up with their own lines and many of their basic character traits. Harrelson, of course, could play an irresponsible stoner like Jack Faro in his sleep. Jack's been married about 74 times, and occasionally finds himself hitting on women such as his employee Toni (Shannon Elizabeth in a brief cameo), who has to remind him that they've already been married.

Cheryl Hines (who still looks hot even with a really bad hairdo) plays poker whiz Lainie Schwartzman, and while not all that funny herself, Hines' experience on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has made her an expert straight woman for guys like Ray Romano as her husband Fred. Fred's feeling a bit useless as his wife brings home the bacon for their family, and tries to compensate by creating interesting handshakes for his kids, excelling at fantasy football, and coming up with clever sayings. ("Gimme a cup of joe, I wanna see the milkman and I'm takin' it up the beanstalk" means he wants a large decaf.)

Lainie's twin brother Larry (David Cross) is also in the tournament, driven by a fierce sibling rivalry drilled into him since childhood by their cranky old man, wonderfully played by Gabe "Mr. Kotter" Kaplan. Cross is one of the most talented improv performers in the cast and it's too bad he doesn't get more screen time. SPINAL TAP's own Michael McKean shows up as an addlebrained billionaire who has his sights set on The Rabbit's Foot, while Dennis Farina is an old-school Vegas card shark with mob connections and Richard Kind plays a gee-whiz poker newbie whose incredible dumb luck lands him a spot in the final round.

The large cast also includes Estelle Harris, Jason Alexander, famed German director Werner Herzog, several actual poker champs who'll probably be familiar to those of you who follow these competitions, Michael Karnow in a funny role as an inept sports announcer trying to hawk his line of crappy "How to Win at Poker" merchandise, and, last but not least, "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Chris Parnell as a super-geeky weirdo who drinks "brain juice" during each game and likens himself to the human computers known as Mentats from Frank Herbert's "Dune."

The most interesting aspect of THE GRAND is the fact that the final game's outcome was unscripted and depended solely upon which actor happened to win. So we get to see an actual poker game being played by finalists Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Chris Parnell, Dennis Farina, and Richard Kind (while staying in character, of course), and the suspense, disappointments, and final victory are all real. Knowing this adds a whole new dimension to the climactic scenes.

When the movie's over, there's an ample array of extras to explore, including a commentary by Penn, co-writer Matt Bierman, and actor Michael Karnow. Harrelson, Hines, and Romano join Penn for commentaries on their own specific scenes, including several deleted scenes and an alternate ending featuring an entirely different game outcome. (Penn and the terminally-laidback Harrelson are especially funny.) There are also some entertaining profiles which allow the actors to improvise even more comedy bits for their characters, and a trailer. All in all, lots of fun bonus stuff.

THE GRAND isn't on the same level as Christopher Guest's standard-setting mockumentaries, but with a great cast and pretty much non-stop gags, it does provide a sizable amount of breezy entertainment. And the genuine poker competition between the actors in the final round (with an actual jackpot of $500 at stake) is a unique feature that fans of the game won't want to miss.

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