For pure cinema, nothing rivals a high-stakes, full-tilt poker game — unless it's somebody landing on Ventnor Avenue with two houses, or sending an opponent to the backgammon bar with double threes, or laying down a four with a bloodcurdling cry of "Uno!" Add poker to the long list of games that typically lose whatever makes them compelling as soon as they're arranged and restaged for film. Brain-fogging tedium interrupted by motor repetition, intense psychological scrutiny, and inner calculation of odds and possible hands — the reels are ready to fly off the projector, huh? You can throw the damn cards in spinning slow motion, as in Mel Gibson's Maverick, and for all the excitement that lands onscreen it might as well be 52 Pickup.
Maybe it helps to have a bone-deep knowledge of the game. Or not. In an Esquire piece last year, critic and card shark Mike D'Angelo laid out why the audience at a realistic poker movie would get bigger kicks watching a pool table being vacuumed. Great movies about gambling — Robert Altman's California Split, say, or Jacques Demy's Bay of Angels — concern almost everything but the rules of the game or even the outcome of the wager. What matters are faces, surroundings, sharp talk, and the behavior of people in the grip of fixation — people undaunted by losing, yet unappeased by winning.
The Grand, a largely improvised comedy set at a Las Vegas poker championship, isn't as good or tough-minded as those movies. But it earns a seat at the table anyway, mostly because it's funny — sometimes very funny. It has a lot of affection for its screwy characters, and it has a cast worth watching even when the plot is held captive by a bunch of boring cards. As the convergence of two cooling trends — poker and the mock-doc — the movie is itself somewhat the victim of a bum deal. Even so, it's played all-in.
The backdrop is the Rabbit's Foot, a seedy casino that is anything but royale. With the death of its high-rolling owner, the joint passes to "One-Eyed" Jack Faro — coke-bingeing ne'er-do-well, survivor of 74 quickie marriages, and possessor of the rangiest sideburns this side of the Chester A. Arthur cabinet. Played with foggy burnout bravado by Woody Harrelson, still riding his own hot streak of superior work, Jack has one card left to play against the Trump-like tycoon (Michael Mc-Kean) who wants to raze the place. That's the Rabbit's Foot's longtime tourney, the "Grand," a televised poker competition with a winner-take-all payoff of $10 million.
There's little suspense in finding out who ends up at the final table's six chairs: They're introduced upfront — among them a card-hustling mom (Cheryl Hines) and her overshadowed sibling (David Cross), a crusty old pro (Dennis Farina) filled with nostalgia for the old Vegas, and an aw-shucks newbie (Richard Kind) who made the cut off the Internet in his hometown of Dour, Wisconsin, "the Frostbite Amputation Capital of the Midwest." The pleasures of this poker party for actors, directed by Zak Penn from a script he outlined with Matt Bierman, lie in the workings of the expert ensemble and the bite of their character-derived dialogue — whether it's Farina grousing about the culottes that ruined Vegas ("They're not a short, they're not a pant — I don't know what the fuck they are") or the loony jargon of would-be rounders. Someone with a 1983 TV Guide, please explain why it sucks to be "sitting pretty with a JM J. Bullock until someone Adrian Zmeds you on the river."
Drawing its climax and much of its cast (including poker-champ announcer Phil Gordon) from Celebrity Poker Showdown, the unlikeliest TV hit since Alf, The Grand forms a time capsule of the early-century poker bubble — that moment when the game was dragged out of the backrooms into prime time, its daylight-challenged top guns became mainstream celebrities, and the Net raked fish into the nets of five-card predators. (Latecomer Cross' domain name — ICantBelieveIGettoPlayPokerDotCom777.net — typifies the knowing humor.) Only slight exaggeration turns it into a hothouse for exotic species, such as Harold Melvin (SNL alum Chris Parnell in a whale of a comic performance), a less-outgoing Rain Man who slurps protein shakes and sullenly blurts insults cribbed from Dune.
As with Penn's previous feature, the prankish Incident at Loch Ness, The Grand's obvious comparison point is Christopher Guest's mock-doc explorations of the obsessive fringe — movies whose subjects address a camera crew that may exist only in their spotlight-hungry psyches. Penn plays fast and loose with the format, and the improvisational seams really show when he has to advance the plot, especially in the clumsy twist that determines the final showdown. Even then, however, there's more to watch than just the turn of the cards, like the merrily hammy psycho act of Penn's Loch Ness collaborator Werner Herzog — who shows up, believe it or not, as a brass-knuckled, bunny-stroking nut known as the German. Put Herzog at the same table as Hines, Harrelson, Parnell, Cross, and Farina, and poker on film starts to look a lot less dull. Imagine what they could do with Monopoly.