What do you get when you put a jokester, a social misfit and a German whose best friend is a rabbit named Munchkin in the same room? Why, the world’s second most famous high stakes poker tournament, of course. A mockumentary in the spirit of improvisational comedies like Best in Show and This is Spinal Tap, the ensemble comedy The Grand is writer-director Zak Penn’s messy love poem to both card playing and the aspirant Vegas lifestyle in general.
Set in the world of professional poker, the film’s story follows the players as they struggle to get to the final table at the Grand Championship of Poker, held at The Rabbit’s Foot Casino. The Grand was improvised from a detailed treatment co-written by Penn, whose writing credits include X-Men: The Last Stand and the forthcoming The Incredible Hulk, and collaborator Matt Bierman (Urban Legends: Bloody Mary), who also served as executive producer. It stars some of today’s top comedic supporting players, boasting an eclectic cast that includes Woody Harrelson, David Cross, Dennis Farina, Cheryl Hines, Michael McKean, Richard Kind, Chris Parnell, Jason Alexander, Judy Greer and Ray Romano. The film also stars Shannon Elizabeth, Hank Azaria, legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, less legendary American director Brett Ratner and sitcom vet Gabe Kaplan, himself a poker ace in his (ample?) spare time. Cameos by professional poker players like Phil Gordon, Andy Bellin, Doyle Brunson, Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Hellmuth Jr. and Phil Laak lend the proceedings even further rootedness.
In fact, it’s that sense of legitimate detail that most recommends the movie. Shot at the famous Golden Nugget Casino, and lighting upon all sorts of insider-ish social etiquette humor that comes from sharing cramped, bluff-happy space with a bunch of strangers, The Grand has the twin pillars of setting and tone on its side, thus enabling it to work more or less as a filmic exercise. Though it sometimes creeps over into self-satisfaction, there’s enough fun character work here to qualify the movie as a diversion; Parnell’s clutchy, Asperger’s Syndrome-stricken homebody stands out, as does Cross’ crass attention whore.
Housed in a regular Amray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, The Grand is released by Anchor Bay, who typically does a smash-up job on their DVD presentations and packaging, regardless of the quality of extras. A full house of supplemental material is included here, though, underscoring the personal nature of the title. A sort of meta-audio commentary track with Penn, co-writer Bierman and actor Michael Karnow kicks things off, though their attention to anecdotal detail waxes and wanes. Alternate endings (owing to the fact that the movie’s finale is shot in real time, with a real hand) and a half dozen deleted scenes are included too, along with select scenes with commentary from Harrelson, Hines, Romano and Penn, the constant co-pilot. In addition to the theatrical trailer, there is also a “player profiles” feature that lets home audiences view a mix of material (some in the final cut of the movie, some excised) on eight characters. To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. B- (Movie) B+ (Disc)