In The Grand, Woody Harrelson’s character Jack Faro is proof that for addicts, sometimes admitting you have a problem is not the first step. In fact, in his case, it seems to have been the gateway that perhaps just having only one, two, or eight addictions weren’t enough as—cheaper by the dozen—it’s Jack’s policy to “bring ‘em on” becoming addicted to every possible drug known to man. And while we’re at it, he threw marriage into the mix, making Elizabeth Taylor look like a blushing amateur, having walked down the aisle exactly 74 times and although he tells the camera in Zak Penn’s hilarious Christopher Guest-like mockumentary that he loved each and every one of his wives, within minutes we realize that he can’t exactly place them all.
Soon, true to form, Jack completely forgets the fact that he’d once wed the lovely, Shannon Elizabeth who works as an employee of the casino he’d inherited from his grandfather. Incidentally, it's the same place he’s darn near run into the ground with disastrous theme choices for its reconstruction including renovating the classic old school Rabbit’s Foot Casino so that it resembles a nuclear reactor or pays homage to the great Chicago Fire. Obviously, the drugs have affected his mental state and rock bottom for Jack came when he was kicked out of his own casino and-- although he can’t honestly remember-- he believes he’d given the order himself.
Needless to say he’s got a lot of work to do and fittingly we first encounter Jack where he’s resided for two years at rehab where he’s up to his Casanova like old ways, wooing his doctor with a song about the twelve steps, although he’s only on the first one. Promising his lovesick doctor that he’ll write, he’s convinced to leave rehab to try and save his family’s Rabbit’s Foot Casino by playing for a place in the final round of the six person North American Indoor Poker League winner take all tournament, complete with a ten million dollar prize.
Harrelson’s hilarious performance serves as the film’s anchor and coming off the heels of his impressive work in the somber No Country for Old Men and The Walker, it's a nice stepping stone to an even funnier ensemble piece than his work alongside Will Ferrell in Semi-Pro. In order to give Harrelson more to work with, Zak Penn invites numerous veteran comedians to the cinematic party as well. Although IMDb reports the script was a mere twenty-nine pages, in the hands of improvisational pros and versatile entertainers like Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Ray Romano, Jason Alexander, Richard Kind, Judy Greer, and countless others, they elevate what should have been a lackluster forgettable rental into one of the most surprisingly entertaining DVD sleepers of 2008.
One of the first and incidentally least likable competitors we meet is Chris Parnell’s angry, anal-retentive, mathematically obsessed Harold who not only lives with his mother but makes her life a living hell ensuring she’s always preparing his nutritious brain food, complete with supplements. Moving the action to Massapequa, we meet one of the competition’s likeliest frontrunners, Lainie (Cheryl Hines), who given the rarity of her gender in the finals is merely dubbed “The Woman” instead of being served up one of the memorable, alternately cheesy, and hip nicknames. Having been raised by a hyper masculine, challenge hungry, dysfunctional father (Gabe Kaplan) alongside her fellow aggressive and obnoxious player and brother Larry (David Cross), Lainie is used to dealing with difficult men. However, her main preoccupation away from cards seems to be tirelessly supporting her husband Ray Romano who hasn’t been the same since he survived a lightning strike. Now filling his time by inventing new ideas such as “the round beach towel,” nonsensical sayings, and odd handshakes, Romano’s biggest concern seems to be in negotiating with his wife over who has to look after their children if her shot at the championship conflicts with his Yahoo Fantasy Football draft time slot.
Of course, Vegas isn’t Vegas without veteran old-timers and they arrive in the form of an odd turn from legendary director Werner Herzog as a surprisingly hilarious and frightening man simply dubbed “The German” who shares that he feels most alive and ensures maximum human energy by killing an animal everyday. We also meet Dennis Farina’s cowboy-hat-and-boot-wearing Deuce Fairbanks who, when he isn’t threatening to whack those who annoy him, bemoans the downfall of Sin City when they began letting people wearing culottes into the casinos.
Ordinarily with that many players, one would think they’d have their work cut out for them already, but the biggest question mark arrives later on. The players don't know exactly what to think when the laughably amateurish and earnestly friendly, successful online party poker winner Andy Andrews (Richard Kind) abandons the icy temperatures of Wisconsin, complete with his supportive wife (Judy Greer) in tow, hoping they’ll be the ones to capture the ten million dollar booty in order to flee the cold weather and Greer’s self-owned Ribbon Store to move somewhere warm.
One of the perils of releasing a mockumentary after Spinal Tap performer turned director Christopher Guest has basically perfected the art and turned it into a science with his brilliant classics Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, is that one will never be able to reach the astronomically high bar set by those films. However, as mock-docs go, I’ve seen far worse, and I was quite surprised by the freewheeling, rapid-fire humor of The Grand which seemed to belong to the vintage Woody Allen and Steve Martin school of a gag-a-minute approach (with only half being successful). I’d even go as far as to say I’d watch this one again in a heartbeat before I popped Guest’s sharp but largely melancholy A Mighty Wind back into my disc player.
Predictably most critics employed a “party” analogy to utilize in their critiques in describing The Grand’s overwhelmingly large cast that’s nearly bursting at the seams, thus pointing out that with that many “attendees” it’s hard for viewers to become attentive hosts, giving each an adequate amount of attention. This being said, Penn knows which individuals are worth spending more time with and which cameos are best left trimmed for by the editors (for example: only a few moments of Brett Ratner and much more Jason Alexander). And with the one exception of wanting to see more of the scene stealing Herzog as we’ve never seen him before—amazed that this tyrannical, mad Dr. Strangelove like character is embodied by the same person who brought us the masterful Rescue Dawn-- when our attention is largely directed at veteran performers like Harrelson and Hines, we know we’re in good hands.
So when Incredible Hulk writer Zak Penn is the one holding The Grand’s deck of cards, the audience can lean back and say, as Shirley MacLaine famously quipped at the end of The Apartment, “shut up and deal.”