The Grand (2007)
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The Grand (2007)

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In order to make progress in any field there is a need for experimentation. While these experiments fail more often than they succeed much can be learned and the field moves forward. This holds as true for the arts as it does for the sciences. With film some directors try to think out of the box and try something different. Even if the result is less than stellar as a movie they have to receive proper credit for the courage to try. This is the case with the film ‘The Grand’ from Zak Penn. Instead of having a well defined script for the actors to follow Penn and his writing partner Matt Bierman created a detailed treatment of the story and let the various actors come up with the details of their characters and their dialogue. Now to be honest here this is not a completely new concept. Christopher Guest has been doing improvisational ‘mockumentaries’ for years and a few years back Michael Radford tried it in more serious vein with his film ‘Dancing at the Blue Iguana’. Even though this film is standing on the shoulders of others that have come before it there is still the experimental feel to it. So many movies are rigidly tied to a script that when something comes along that gives a greater freedom to the actors there is something to admire about it.

Penn and Bierman came up with an idea based on the growing popularity of poker tournaments. Now you can watch such games on the sports cable networks and even late at night on some of the mainstream broadcast stations. It may seem a little strange to sit there and watch someone else play poker but it is now big business with a lot of celebrities joining in. ‘The Grand’ centers on a fictitious poker championship held in Las Vegas. The writers here created the scaffold for the story they called "scriptments" with background information, settings and general sketches of the main characters. It was up to the cast to come up with the fully developed natures of their characters and provide appropriate dialogue for each scene. Since the poker games were subject to chance and the actual skills of the performers the ending could not be directly written; it would depend on who actually won the mock tournament. This is a major part of the experimentation here. In something like Guest’s ‘Best in Show’ they depicted a dog show but the result was predetermined. In order to be successful in an experiment it is vital that the experimenter know the current standards and practices. You can’t move out of the box unless you know the box. In the case of Penn he has written several very successful screenplays including a few comic book flicks like the last two X-Men movies, ‘Fantastic Four’, ‘Elektra’, and the upcoming Hulk flick. He has also worked on action movies with ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ and ‘Suspect Zero’ so it can be said with certainty that he has paid his dues with conventional script writing and has earned his right to try something different. He started his work on off the cuff style films with ‘Incident at Loch Ness’ which he also directed. For Mr. Bierman this is his first time writing.

Since this type of film is all about the characters it is important that they be well defined and the audience can identify with them at least on some level. This is nicely done here. Penn and Beirman provided their cast with richly developed people to create and run with. Since a film about poker would have the tendency to be too dry the writers chose to use that as a MacGuffin with the real story about the people in the tournament and their families. The game itself is far more important to the characters than it is to the audience. What we want to see is how the people involved deal with the stress of the game while trying to handle their kooky kin. This is not to say there is a lack of real poker playing. There are more shots of the cards and players than many will find tolerable. This is just part of the fun parodying the type of television coverage that seems to have taken over. The direction is straightforward in typical documentary fashion. Penn uses his camera as a voyeur following the contestants through the process. In interviews he has acknowledged the films of Christopher Guest and in many ways this is homage to the ground breaking films he created. Much of the humor here is derived from the natural feel of the film. At times you may even think you are watching coverage of a real poker tournament with the usual assortment of colorful characters they always contain.

Woody Harrelson is One Eyed Jack Faro. He is an addict who just can’t seem to get a firm grip on recovery. Recently his grandfather left him a casino in Las Vegas and unless he can clear a huge debt the family business will be torn to the ground. The $10 million prize would save his casino and the family name. Harrelson is a diverse actor who can scare the audience as he did in ‘Natural Born Killers’ or switch to the loveable simpleton as he did on ‘Cheers’. Here he channels a man torn between his own addictive behavior and having to step up to do something important for once in his life. David Cross from the cable comedy series ‘Mr. Show’ plays Larry Schwartzman. He is part of a zany family that helps to provide many of the laughs here. His sister Lainie (Cheryl Hines) is a mother of five and still the favorite of their mostly out of it father Seth (Gabe Kaplan). He has brought them up to always compete with each other and the world. Her husband Fred (Ray Romano) usually stays at home with the kids while Lainie supports them. Every poker tournament needs someone to fill the role of the mysterious foreigner. In this film the part is taken by Werner Herzog as ‘The German’. He does his best Bond Villain imitation as he sits back and constantly strokes the fur of his pet rabbit. With a light nod to ‘Rainman’ we have Harold Melvin (Chris Parnell). He is an idiot savant with slight autistic tendencies and is infatuated with the film ‘Dune’. Since the setting is Las Vegas you need an old school mobster such as Deuce Fairbanks (Dennis Farina). He goes on and on about the good old days. Last there is the amateur Andy Andrews (Richard Kind) who relies more on dumb luck than any possible skill or knowledge of the game.

You can always count of Anchor Bay for a little independent films that unless you are really up on art house news you might have missed. This film was well received at the recent Tribecca Film Festival and now you can add it to your personal collection. The DVD features an anamorphic 1.78:1 video transfer and a surprisingly robust Dolby 5.1 audio. The extras include several alternate endings, deleted scenes and profiles of the players. There is a feature commentary track with Penn, Bierman and actor Michael Karnow. Selected scenes also have commentaries with Romano, Hines and Harrelson. It may have its flaws but this film is better than most of the grind them out comedies around; give it a try and enjoy.

Posted 05/10/08

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