The Grand Zak Penn

The Grand Zak Penn
Poker movies are a rare commodity in Hollywood. Maverick, Rounders and The Cincinnati Kid are probably the most prominent and The Grand is a far cry from any of them. Zak Penn, the scribe responsible for Last Action Hero, X-Men 2 and 3 and the upcoming Incredible Hulk film, has ditched his pen in favor of directing this Christopher Guest-inspired improvisational comedy. Penn and co-"writer” Matt Beirman sketched out a brief outline of a script about a group of wacky and eccentric poker players competing in a big Texas Hold ’em tournament. Instead of fleshing out the story and dialogue with the lack of wit he invested in crap like Elektra, Penn wisely assembled a cast of genius improvisers to create their own characters and improvise almost all the actual lines and situations. Woody Harrelson plays Jack Faro, a substance abuser so extreme he actually lives in rehab. Cheryl Hines and David Cross play the Schwartzman siblings, Lainie and Larry. He’s known for his asshole distraction tactics and she’s a mother of five supporting her kids and fantasy baseball-obsessed slacker husband, played by Ray Romano. Dennis Farina bristles with hilarious contempt as cocky old-timer Deuce Fairbanks and Richard Kind (Spin City) uses his awkward, innocent charm effectively as novice card player Andy Andrews. The real scene-stealers however, are SNL vet Chris Parnell and legendary director Werner Herzog. Parnell goes way beyond the call of duty in personifying Harold Melvin, a socially crippled statistics genius who’s brutally honest and freakishly obsessed with Dune. Herzog’s performance as the lotion-loving, animal-killing, card playing ball of rage called "the German” is hysterical. The sheer number of cameos is well documented in "Wild Cards,” a special feature on all the participants in the tournament, from a bunch of real life poker pros to Michael McKean, Hank Azaria and producer Avi Arad. The deleted scenes are quality and a bunch of select scene commentaries with the actors and Penn are funnier than they are illuminating, as is the feature commentary track. An alternate ending is included because of the movie’s real ace in the hole: the final round of cards was played for real, so whoever won the hand determined the outcome of the film. It’s quite a gamble, but one that ultimately paid off. (Anchor Bay)