The Grand (Anchor Bay Entertainment, R)

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Some people like to watch other people playing cards on television, while others would rather watch the paint dry on their bedroom ceiling. There’s no point in arguing about who is right, but if you like to watch poker on ESPN, that’s another indication that you might enjoy The Grand.

In the opening scene of The Grand, casino heir One-Eyed Jack Faro (Woody Harrelson) serenades a physician (Julie Claire) at his rehab clinic with a self-composed ditty beginning:
Twelve steps
Twelve steps
Only got eleven more.

If that makes you laugh, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy The Grand. If not, you might want to find another way to spend your recreational dollar, because while there’s plenty more where that came from, that’s as good as it gets.

The Grand is an improvised comedy in the style of Christopher Guest films like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. The object of parody in this case is televised poker tournaments: action in The Grand centers around six contestants vying for a $10 million prize in The Grand Championship of Poker, somewhat self-deprecatingly described as “the world’s second most famous high stakes tournament.” This brings us to another fork in the road. Some people like to watch other people playing cards on television, while others would rather watch the paint dry on their bedroom ceiling. There’s no point in arguing about who is right, but if you like to watch poker on ESPN, that’s another indication that you might enjoy The Grand.

One thing that’s not lacking in The Grand is star power: principal actors include Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Chris Parnell, Werner Herzog and Dennis Farina, and those in supporting roles include Ray Romano, Estelle Harris, Jason Alexander and Hank Azaria. It’s fun watching these well-known actors improvise their way through the scenes, and some of the best bits come from the minor characters: Estelle Harris as Chris Parnell’s doting mother is particularly good. The problem is that while they seldom fall on their faces (a great advantage of film over standup being that you can edit out the embarrassing failures) they seldom really hit it, either. In fact, they pretty much just trundle along, and the outtakes included in the credit sequence are at least as funny as the scenes that actually made it into the film.

The improvised format succeeds well enough within most scenes, but works against any development of character or story over the length of the film. A collection of sketches does not add up to a drama in this case, although if your expectations are not high in that department The Grand can be entertaining enough from moment to moment.
The production values in The Grand are quite good: the film really looks like an ESPN-style poker tournament, right down to the logoed merchandise, inane expert commentary and deadly serious behind-the-scenes interviews with the participants. Whether it’s an improvement over the actual product is a separate question. In this regard one is reminded of Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about a dog walking on its hind legs: the remarkable thing is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all. On the other hand, since the television poker boom seems to be waning, The Grand may prove to be the enduring monument to that particular period in popular culture. | Sarah Boslaugh

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