The Grand [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #29]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #29.  Spoilers ahead.  

The Grand

Directed by Zak Penn

Release Date:  March 21, 2008 (though it turns out it debuted at a film festival on June 7 of the previous year, which actually was my 37th birthday!)
My age then:  37 years old

What it is about:  A variety of players compete for a huge winner-takes-all prize in a Las Vegas poker tournament called the Grand. The players include Jack Faro (a struggling casino owner who is actually the grandson of the founder of the Grand), Andy Andrews (an extremely lucky amateur), Harold Melvin (an autistic genius who lives with his mother), Lainie and Larry Schwartzman (twins who have deep-seated family issues) and Deuce Fairbanks (an old poker pro).

Starring Woody Harrelson as Jack, Cheryl Hines as Lanie, David Cross as Larry, Dennis Farina as Deuce, Richard Kind as Andy and Chris Parnell as Larry. Also starring Ray Romano as Lanie’s husband, Gabe Kaplan as Lanie and Larry’s father, Werner Herzog as an insane poker player known only as “the German”, Barry Corbin as Jack’s father, Estelle Harris as Harold’s mother, Michael Karnow as a self-aggrandizing tournament announcer, Michael McKean as a building developer looking to take away Jack’s casino, and Andrea Savage as Jack’s latest girlfriend who works for his business rival. Featuring appearances as various poker plays by Jason Alexander, Hank Azaria, Brett Ratner, and a bunch of real-life poker players.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I only heard about this film from my research for this series, and all I knew about it really was that it was an “improv” comedy along the lines of a Christopher Guest film.

Reality: Well, I wasn’t wrong. It’s an “improv” comedy that apparently had a very short script, allowing the actors to improvise their way through each scene. But at the same time, the movie is lot more than just a bunch of random conversations, so there is certainly a plot that was mapped out–but just one in which the ending was left to chance…

Or would you call it luck, or maybe destiny? That’s the sort of conversation some of the characters have about the game of poker, and it may be relevant here because the climactic game was not scripted. The conclusion of the championship that we see (or that we see highlights of, anyway) was apparently a real game being played by the actors. This seems to have worked out well for the film since the final two players–Jack and Lanie–were probably the best two they could have had for dramatic purposes.

Aside from this, though, the actual poker games are not especially exciting. It’s of course interesting to realize that they were really betting, calling, raising and going all-in, but I didn’t know that while I was watching it, so the actual scene itself just felt sort of flat. Sure, watching people play poker can be fun, but the scenes were not particularly dramatic, funny, or compelling from a character point of view. The very last hand was was a bit dramatic, with it all coming down the final card, but aside from that the climax of the film was a bit lackluster.

Prior to this there were some laughs to be had, but they were pretty uneven, and the film took a long time to find its feet. It’s clearly trying very hard to be clever and off-beat, but often feels forced and shallow. As it went along, the movie gave me some opportunities to sympathize with the characters, and I warmed up them all.

Maybe the most sympathetic story is that of twins Lainie and Larry Schwartzman, whose father has been pitting them against each other in competitions all their lives. Lanie’s husband is played by Ray Romano from Everybody Loves Raymond, and her father is Gabe Kaplan from Welcome Back, Kotter, so she’s got quite a good sit-com pedigree. Larry, who was usually the loser in this, has got the strongest character arc in the movie, as he seems to legitimately learn about himself, going from one of the more annoying characters to one of the most sympathetic. Sadly, it gets thrown away in the film’s last few minutes, when nearly everyone’s character growth gets undone for the sake of a few quick laughs. Rather than make it funnier, it just serves to make the movie feel more meaningless.

Still, there were parts that worked, and characters that gave genuine laughs. One of the funnier minor characters was played by Michael McKean, who appears here as an insane property developer who plans to build a huge hotel structure that is all one big room, even though it is made up of two adjoining towers (they are the same room because they share a wind pipe). Another one was a gambler called simply, “The German” played by Werner Herzog. The German makes an effort to kill a living creature every day in order to strengthen himself as a poker player–therefore he tells the hotel staff not to worry about the various animals that he brings to his room because they won’t be there very long.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? In the end, The Grand isn’t a film that will stick with me–it takes some moderately funny characters and puts them into a moderately engaging situation, and gives them some moderately interesting observations to make along the way. All this adds up to a fine but forgettable film

See here for the Master List.

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