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While most sports movies tend to take themselves very seriously, with triumphant underdogs and platitude-filled speeches in their third acts, some sports just inherently lend themselves to comedy. Bowling is a great example of this, as evidenced by the success of films like the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Poker is another, though the game itself is so relatively inactive that it’s debatable whether it should even be called a sport, and Zak Penn‘s underrated improvisational comedy The Grand takes full advantage of a poker tournament’s many humorous possibilities.
Similar to the revered work of Christopher Guest and his regular ensemble of actors in films like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Penn assembles a talented ensemble cast and gives them direction on who their characters are, then leaves the dialogue and the development of situations largely up to them. In fact, the poker tournament at the center of the film is a real tournament, and its outcome was undetermined in the script; the winner at the end of the film actually just beat the other actors, regardless of narrative expectations. This approach gives the film extra vitality and excitement, and with so much room to breathe, the cast creates lively, hilarious characters that often riff on and expand their real public personae.
Woody Harrelson stars as “One Eyed” Jack Faro, the owner of The Rabbit’s Foot casino, which he hopes to save by winning an annual tournament called The Grand. Of course, it is the drug-addled, 74-time divorcée Jack’s own bad investments and reckless behavior that has jeopardized his ownership of the casino in the first place, but despite his many vices, Jack is a charming and lovable rogue worth rooting for. His main competition in the tournament includes the Schwartzman twins, Larry (David Cross, who had a good real-life run on Celebrity Poker Showdown) and Lainie (Cheryl Hines); the Rain Man-like genius Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell, best known as 30 Rock‘s incompetent Dr. Leo Spaceman); and oblivious newcomer Andy Andrews (Richard Kind).
As funny and well-developed as all these primary characters are, however, it is the bit parts that really shine in The Grand. Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog brings a deadpan menace to his character, “The German,” a ruthless cheat who brings a small menagerie of animals with him to the casino’s hotel because, as he says, “To feel alive and to get this energy, it is essential for me to kill something each day.” Dennis Farina is also particularly memorable as LBJ “Deuce” Fairbanks, a Las Vegas veteran nostalgic for a less family-friendly time in the city’s history; as he fondly remembers it, “It was a place where the Jews and the blacks had to enter the casinos through rear entrances. By the way, on this corner right here, I stabbed a bum.” Though barely released in theaters and largely ignored, The Grand is a consistently funny, anarchistic good time for poker fans and novices alike.