by Jeff Meyers
Even Christopher Guest doesn't make good Christopher Guest movies anymore. For Your Consideration was pretty much a loser and the overpraised A Mighty Wind was a minor comic affair with great music. Hence, the mantle of the mockumentary has passed from the big screen to the small where Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office make the best of this great comic form.
But there must be room for more feature-length efforts, right? Director-screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men 2 and X-Men: The Last Stand, Fantastic Four, Elektra) thinks so. In '04 he teamed with Werner Herzog to create the more-meta-than-faux documentary Incident at Loch Ness. A delectable but minor-key satire, it kept its comedy sly and understated and used Herzog's no-nonsense persona to blur its intentions.
In contrast, Penn's follow-up, The Grand, shows no such restraint. Following in the footsteps of Best in Show, this ad-libbed send-up of Vegas-style poker championships manages to land a few good laughs but ultimately suffers in comparison. Even with Herzog's hilarious participation as "the German," a humorless cardsharp who gets energy from killing small creatures —"Most people drink coffee, but I think it is some sort of beverage of the cowards," he explains — the film never attains the heights of Guest's improvisational humor.
Woody Harrelson plays the drug-addled, serial groom (74 marriages and counting) "One-Eyed" Jack Faro, who's on the verge of losing his family's Vegas casino to billionaire mogul Steve Lavisch (Michael McKean). Sprung from rehab, One-Eyed hopes to snag the $10 million pot in a high-profile poker tournament called "The Grand" and save the Rabbit's Foot Casino. He faces a rogue's gallery of pro misfits and neurotics: Cheryl Hines is the foul-mouthed mom from Massapequa, who's favored over her hypercompetitive brother David Cross by their father Gabe Kaplan. Chris Parnell (SNL) is a hilariously Asperger's-ridden math geek, Dennis Farina is the corrupt old-timer, and Richard Kind is the clueless but lucky amateur who accidentally qualifies for the competition after Googling "fireplace poker" and landing in an online game.
The unscripted comedy is mostly hit-or-miss and the funniest stuff rises in the movie's first third. Things kick off with amusing backstories and clever guest cameos (Hank Azaria as a bigmouthed tough guy, Jason Alexander as an ambiguous Middle Easterner) in the early rounds but then quickly lose their way. The biggest problem is that Penn and co-writer Matt Bierman provide too much plot and too little urgency. Except for Harrelson, the stakes don't seem particularly high for any of the players and so we're never pulled into the competition. Extended side bits featuring Ray Romano as Hines' henpecked, lightning-struck husband and the tournament's sparring show hosts (real-life card pro Phil Gordon and Michael Karnow) not only fall flat but also divert from the main story.
The film's final showdown is a mostly humorless trudge that plays a bit too much like the ESPN celebrity poker matches it mocks.
It's not that The Grand isn't filled with some great comic conceits — David Cross playing in a burqa or psyching out his opponents by stalking the table like a jungle cat are highlights — but the ideas sound funnier than they are. Execution is everything and Penn hasn't mastered Guest's understated deadpan approach or impeccable timing. Many jokes try too hard and go on too long. Worse, Penn doesn't know how to pull everyone into the same comic universe, so the tone's haphazard and uneven. Despite his noble improvisational intentions, The Grand ends up being 30 minutes of great individual material surrounded by a lot of misfires.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.