Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Missing the Mark: The Grand (2007)

Zak Penn’s sophomore effort The Grand has just about everything going for it. For one, it’s stuffed to the hilt with funny people: Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Dennis Farina, Chris Parnell, Gabe Kaplan, Ray Romano, and Michael McKean are all a part of the cast. Even Werner Herzog makes a cameo. It’s also got the kind of promising plot (a group of eccentrics competing in a high-stakes Vegas poker tournament) that seems catered to the self-reflexive, Christopher Guest-style improvisational comedy that worked so well in Penn’s directorial debut, Incident at Loch Ness. With all this in mind, it only seems all the more disappointing that The Grand is devastatingly mediocre. It’s by no means a total misfire, but for every joke or scene that’s worthy of a laugh, there are two or three that fall flat. In the end, it never manages to be more than just offhandedly amusing.

What’s so odd about The Grand is that the parts of it that are actually funny are what end up being its undoing. Penn and Matt Bierman, who wrote the 29-page script that the improv scenes work around, built up a massive backstory around each of the main characters, and these parts of the film prove to be its funniest moments. We learn about Harrelson’s character “One Eyed” Jack Faro, a lifelong substance abuser(“If you can drink it, snort it , shoot it or smoke it, then I’ve done it”), who’s been married more than fifty times and is trying to win the titular poker tournament to save his family’s casino. There is also Chris Parnell as a socially awkward poker genius who quotes lines from Dune at the table, and Hines and Cross as Lainey and Larry Schwartzman, twin siblings that have been forced into competition since birth by their overbearing father (Gabe Kaplan). All of these backstories, including Farina’s as an old-school Sinatra type and Richard Kind as a dimwitted amateur, are quite admirably constructed, and make for some of the movie’s most laugh-out-loud moments. Penn uses graphics and cut scenes to slip in some sly humor, and one bit where Herzog’s character (a leather-clad sociopath known only as “The German”) is photoshopped into old photos is too ridiculous not to be hilarious.

The problem, then, is that once Penn has exhausted the fun of introducing this motley crew of characters, we wish we could watch them do something more interesting than play cards. If the lack of movies centered around poker (especially when it’s so wildly popular) tells you anything, it’s that it’s not the most compelling thing in the world to watch, and The Grand is about as much proof of that as you need. After introducing everyone and giving them the opportunity to execute some more high concept jokes, what we’re left with is essentially the movie version of that Celebrity Poker Showdown TV show (which, oddly enough, no less than three of these actors have appeared on).

The structural problems introduced by the lengthy backstories take their toll on the actors, as well. Given such fully formed characters early on, most of the stars involved have nowhere to go, and the majority of them fall into the trap of latching on to one or two quirks of their character and trying to milk them for all they’re worth. Cheryl Hines, usually great on HBO’s improvised series Curb Your Enthusiasm, plays the lone female ringer, a mother of four with an oddball husband (Ray Romano, surprisingly funny) that was once struck by lightning. Although she’s onscreen perhaps more than anybody else, she’s given the least to do, and eventually resorts to just saying “fuck” every other word in attempt to get cheap laughs. But while Hines still in no way discredits herself, some of the other actors do, most notably improv vet Michael McKean as Steve Lavisch, a seemingly retarded real estate tycoon that’s gunning for Harrelson’s casino. Penn must’ve figured that he could let a guy who’d appeared in This Is Spinal Tap run wild with little direction, but the result is one of the most dreadfully unfunny performances in the film. Similarly, Gabe Kaplan seems to singlehandedly drag the life out of most of the scenes he’s in, and David Cross is also uncharacteristically weak, though he too seems to have little to work with.

Not surprisingly, the best performances in The Grand come from the characters that were given the best backstories, where the one-note joke of their character doesn’t get old too fast. Harrelson is probably the best as the whacked-out born loser Jack Faro, who wears hippie beads and Willie Nelson t-shirts at the poker table and designs novelty casinos like “The Chicago Fire,” where part of the building was always in flames (“it burned down”). Meanwhile, Chris Parnell also works as Harold Melvin, the math genius that lives with his mom and slurps vitamin shakes all day to keep himself mentally sharp. Usually when an SNL-alum is thrown into a comedy film they prove to be one of the weak links, but Parnell is consistently funny here, repeatedly getting laughs out of speaking in a low, nerdy monotone. Michael Karnow, formerly a voice actor for a number of Nickelodeon shows, also steals a lot of laughs as Mike Wierbe, a TV announcer that never misses a chance to plug his book and DVDs for “The Wierbe Method” of poker. Karnow seems to get the zany mood this film requires just right, and his interaction with his straight man co-host Phil Gordon (an actual poker pro) makes for some nice moments.

Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness was for me a minor stroke of genius, playing on the dual legends of the Loch Ness monster and Werner Herzog in a way that was intelligent, fresh and often outright hilarious. The Grand is working on a much smaller conceit, but it still manages to miss the mark because of its overall lack of structure. I’ve yet to mention that in addition to the ad-libbed dialogue, the actors in the film actually played the final table of the poker tournament and let the story be decided by who won. It’s seems like a cool idea, and even I was taken by it at first, but in hindsight it’s a big part of why the movie fails to live up to its potential. Sure, it’s faithful to the improvisational technique the filmmakers are working with, but it also runs counter to setting up a truly well-structured, funny story. When improv is done right, you can get classics like Spinal Tap and the best of Christopher Guest, but when it’s bad, it can be really painful to watch, territory that The Grand flirts with just a little too often.

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