Get our free newsletter
Even with a cast of aces up his sleeve, writer-director Zak Penn can’t beat Christopher Guest at his own game in The Grand, a star-studded pro-poker spoof improvised and shot in the erstwhile Nigel Tufnel’s trademark mockumentary style. Penn’s a fair bluffer, though. To help flesh out his reportedly scant 29-page script (co-scratched with Matt Bierman), the writer best known for his work on the X-Men sequels gathered an ensemble skilled at both quick comedy and card-playing—the project’s most interesting twist is that the ending was left open, allowing the story’s top competitors play the final big-stakes game for real. Otherwise, The Grand is parody as usual, with its pseudo-sport, wacky-rivals angle now so familiar you expect Will Ferrell to show up among the mostly lower-profile names such as Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Chris Parnell, Richard Kind, Dennis Farina, and even Werner Herzog, amusingly cast as an intimidating player known simply as “The German.” The focus of the story is Woody Harrelson’s Jack Faro, a gambler with so many addictions that he moved into a rehab center and who is now trying to win the money to buy back his dead grandpa’s casino. Unfortunately, Jack isn’t all that funny or even interesting; besting Harrelson in the Most Thankless Role category, however, is Gabe Kaplan, who isn’t exactly welcomed back as the cruel, crotchety, and downright unlikable father of Hines’ and Cross’ twin players. (Also wasted are Michael McKean, borrowed from the Guest troupe yet allowed only one good joke; Ray Romano, highly unfunny as a dead-weight husband; and Judy Greer, though considering her career choices, that’s less of a surprise.) Mercifully, a few cast members keep things entertaining, most notably Hines, whose plays a dreadlocked trash-talker (“Nobody beats me at Candy Land—ask my kids”) but makes her human instead of caricature, and Parnell, whose underused Harold is a borderline idiot savant who quotes Dune, drones statistics in lieu of small talk, and has lived with his mother “since he was born.” Without them, The Grand would be a fast fold.