Woody Harrelson-starring mockumentary about a winner-takes-all poker tournament lets loose an improbable gaggle of seasoned improvisers (and serious card players) and lets the chips fall where they may. Helmer Zak Penn then reshapes these almost totally impromptu happenings into a neatly segmented pastiche, distressingly evocative of ESPN’s “World Series of Poker.” Safer, more conventional and closer to broad TV sketch humor than Christopher Guest’s comedies of manners, “The Grand” never quite recoups in laughs what it loses in spontaneity, which may paradoxically lure distribs.
Harrelson — who has made a mini-career out of playing marginal, down-on-their-luck sports figures, from the one-handed bowler of “Kingpin” to the hoopster huckster of “White Men Don’t Jump” — is in fine fettle as One-Eyed Jack Faro, a charming ne’er-do-well variously hooked on almost every addictive substance known to man and a serial womanizer. He has inherited the Plugged Nickel casino from his grandfather but is in danger of losing it to soulless real-estate tycoon Steve Lavish (Michael McKean), who wants to build a one-room skyscraper on the hallowed spot.
As attested to by his late grandfather (who shows up in flashbacks and ghostly visitations in men’s rooms), Jack’s only chance of hanging on to his grandpappy’s legacy is to win the big poker tournament, the Grand.
Penn, best known for his scribe work on megabudget Stan Lee-derived action pics (a couple of entries in the “X-Men” franchise, “Electra” and the upcoming “Incredible Hulk”) paints his characters with caricatural strokes, generally leaving the actors to tread water in the absence of any specific directives.
Dennis Farina, as an old-timer nostalgic for the good old mob days of yore, draws on his past roster of white-haired, shoulder-hunching gangsters to beef up his mostly lackluster adlibs. “Saturday Night Live’s” Chris Parnell, as a semi-autistic math whiz with a calculator for a brain and a reliance on “Dune” mantras for inspiration, has repetition built into his very character makeup. Richard Kind, as a kindly Internet champ new to the people-interactive scene, makes the most of his wide-eyed greenhorn role.
But often cast members do little more than fill the casino arena with recognizable faces, as with cameos by Jason Alexander or a scenery-chomping Werner Herzog as “The German.” (Herzog starred in Penn’s first, failed foray into the mockumentary genre, “Incident at Loch Ness.”)
Aside from the Harrelson plot, pic’s one stab at an evolving storyline involves Larry (a neurotic David Cross), his sister Lainie (a relatively sane Cheryl Hines) and their father Seth (Gabe Kaplan), who’s screwed up his offspring by lavishing endless praise on his daughter and nonstop criticism on his son. Beyond the insider joke of using Kaplan, host of his own poker show, as a pathetic parental hanger-on, the shots of him beaming on the fringes of the action bring some much-needed unease and unpredictability to the proceedings.
In retooling the unscripted, extemporaneous matches (including the final roundtable showdown, whose entire sequence of events and ultimate winner were determined by the luck of the draw and the actual skill of the players), Penn has edited out all the “air” — and with it, the edge and immediacy that characterize Guest’s spontaneously combustible slice-of-life outings.
Tech credits are splashy, providing little distance or contrast to the jazzy Vegas casino where the bulk of the pic transpires.