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.
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When “This is Spinal Tap” premiered twenty-five years ago, the now classic mock-documentary…or “mockumentary,” if you will…about lightly-brained, heavily sedated British metal stars on the skids received good reviews but unexciting box office. Considering that most people who saw it – and understood that it wasn’t a real documentary — thought it was one of the funniest movies they’d ever seen, it wasn’t too big a surprise that it soon became a very significant cult hit via home video. What was a bit harder to predict was that a film featuring three only moderately well known comedian/satirists and directed by then first-timer Rob Reiner would become one of the most influential comedies of its era. It certainly wasn’t clear that lines such as “this goes to eleven” or “it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever” would enter the general musical and cultural lexicon, and that, decades on, “mock docs” would remain among the most popular of low-budget movie subgenres — and not only for comedy.
Still the biggest surprise of all was that, as musicians, improv geniuses Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, turned out to be better at music as a sideline than most of those who do it fulltime. Not only could the trio play rockers like “Big Bottom” and “Sex Farm” live with brio and dexterity, “unplugged” versions of such vintage Tap classics as “Listen to the Flower People” and “Give Me Some Money” were among the highlights of their early live shows. Of course, the shows were funny, but the big surprise was how well played the music actually was, wowing both metalheads and metal-haters (that would be me) alike.
It didn’t end there. With Christopher Guest emerging as the most reliable comedy-mockumentary director of his time with such irony fests as “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show,” Guest, McKean, and Shearer became the Limelighters/Kingston Trio-like Folksmen. The group figured prominently in Guest’s affectionate 2003 poke at the folk music scene, “A Mighty Wind,” leading to the inevitable gigs where the geeky but oddly talented folk music threesome would open for the bombastic boy-men of Spinal Tap.
Six years later, however, Guest, McKean and Shearer would, in preparation for an upcoming Spinal Tap reunion, take the ultimate step of acoustically performing a collection of Tap and Folksmen classics as well as new material not as any of their off-kilter comedy personas, but as themselves for this spring’s 30-city “Unwigged and Unplugged” tour, which is now officially underway.
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