About a decade back, newspapers and a few entertainment magazines ran stories about the film and TV parties independent Hollywood types threw for themselves. According to such reports, at these soirees unaired television pilots and canned series episodes were screened, as were outtakes featuring recognizable faces: John C. Reilly's Cops-like improv jaunts with Paul Thomas Anderson for the Magnolia police officer were a frequently cited example. Writer and director Zak Penn's comedy The Grand feels like what you expect such insider entertainments were like. The episodic comedy features a huge cast--David Cross, Dennis Farina, Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, Michael McKean, Chris Parnell, Mike Epps, Judy Greer, Ray Romano, and scores of cameos--slouching toward and through a poker tournament, with every scene, from the table to the backstory inserts, feeling like an improv session.
Some of it is very funny, but it's a hard slog to get to the gems. Jack Faro (Harrelson) is the son of a Las Vegas casino owner with a recovery from every type of drug addiction imaginable in his past, and he's competing in a winner-take-all poker tournament. The tournament itself is the central story, with the six finalists each getting a tangential bit of camera time to tell whom they are in their normal lives when they're not hustling cards. The jokes feel a bit staid--a curmudgeonly old-timer (Farina), the Dune-loving math geek (Parnell), the homemaker (Hines) with her nagging husband (Romano) and needling, needy brother (Cross)--and only rarely hit their mark.
The Grand looks and moves like a TV show because it's obviously going after the mainstreaming of poker and Celebrity Poker Showdown with a Christopher Guest-like mockumentary. Sadly, though, Celebrity Poker Showdown is already a bit of a parody of itself, and the Grand cast pushing everything into the ridiculously over-the-top starts too feel way too self-satisfied. It's a sketch-comedy skit inflated into a feature-length movie that you might find funny if it was made by your friends and you're watching it with them for the seventh time after 23 blunts and you're trying to see who can most mercilessly make fun of it.
Fortunately, Werner Herzog does co-star in The Grand, and as usual, when he appears in front of a camera, he's insane or brilliant or hilarious or some combination of all three. He plays a poker player called "The German" who gets interviewed while sitting with an adorably cute bunny rabbit in his lap. He says, "Some people drink coffee, but I always thought that was the beverage of the cowardly." This enigmatically comic statement is the prelude to how he got into gambling in the first place and what he prefers to drink. Hint: That bunny isn't a pet.